BAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN
by Naomi

PART II

Chapter 26

Ensconced cozily in the depths of a blue brocade wingback chair, his feet propped on a matching ottoman, Nicholas Collins surveyed his world. Small it was, and comfortable although solitary, save for Splinter lurking about the house somewhere and Mrs. Splinter in the kitchen. Small indeed, but Nick reckoned he hadn't even enough strength to stagger from his seat by the window to take a turn about the room. As his dark gaze swept from the window view of a small garden to the interior of the room and the books lining the walls on either side of the door, his stare came to rest on that door. Beyond it was a narrow hall that led in one direction to a pair of neatly decorated but unostentatious salons, and in the other direction to the foyer and front door. Tracing the path in his mind, which was as much of a journey as he seemed capable of making these days, one could exit the front of the house and by descending a mere five steps find oneself in Skeffington Street, a quiet area known for the respectability of its denizens who were generally employed in the professions of law and medicine, although some well-to-do tradesmen also rejoiced to reside in the attractively unpretentious neighbourhood. Walking to the right, one could eventually find an idle jarvey and ride in relative comfort to a more fashionable part of the city, and find exclusive shops selling teas and ices, silks and laces; people with titles, with families, with backgrounds. But if one turned left when leaving the Collins abode --alas, that direction led the casual stroller to quite a different sort of locale. That way led to slums the likes of which fashionable London had -- or claimed to have -- no knowledge; to places such as The Mint, once a bastard sanctuary, the place where his mother and her mother before her had kept body and soul together in the only way they knew how. That place of filth and squalor, of disease and depravity that had been Nick's birthplace.

And here he sat in his little house, squarely betwixt those two realms of extreme. Neither fish, he reckoned, nor fowl, nor good red herring, that was Nick Collins. Which way to turn when at last he regained his strength and openly stepped from his house was a question he now considered carefully: To turn to the right, to move among elegant and learned men, to pretend to a breeding he did not possess, to do the Old Gentleman really proud. Well, he'd done everything the old fellow had demanded of him, had he not? All of it, and more, for all the good it seemed to have done anyone. But to turn to the left, to slide back into that bleak existence, living hand-to-mouth, if indeed one cared to call it living. Meeting the daily demands of such barren harshness would be a terrible struggle.

And perhaps a fit punishment? He wondered.

Nestled sweetly between his two worlds he sat and considered which he truly belonged to, and concluded -- neither. Oh, of a certainty he could still move about freely in both places, if he ever got up out of this damned chair again. But he was far too educated, his tastes in food, wine, company and conversation too well-developed now, to ever really see himself retreating to a place like Tothill Fields or Jacob's Island for any length of time or for any reason but an assignment. Well, there would be no more assignments ever again, and he'd no least desire to rule over a gang of thieves and footpads and informants, which career he would almost certainly abandon himself to if he removed himself thither. Something in his nature about being hung for a sheep as well as lamb, he reckoned.

On t'other hand, Mayfair and Grosvenor Square would not precisely welcome him with open arms again once he stiffened his sinews sufficiently to make the effort to place himself there. Granted, he had one or two genuine friends who would always greet him with sincere warmth: Robin Halliwell for one, and possibly Hetty Bracegirdle would stand by him. Not leaders of the ton, either of them, they both had their own scandals to live down. Nothing like murder, of course, but still...

Bless Robin, he'd had the great loyalty and poor sense to speak most eloquently and passionately in Nick's defense when the entire Whitehall intelligence community had explicitly made known its collective revulsion and intolerance of Nick's behaviour, and relieved him of all further duties on behalf of the Crown. Nick could not disagree with their action or attitude although he had no memory of those specific acts for which he had been discharged. There was a letter from a witness, another British agent, detailing those horrors he had committed. It did not require any great intellect to guess that it must have been Daniel L'Oiseau, for he had the merest flicker of memory of L'Oiseau's face close to his own, staring at him with anger and compassion and, yes, pity, too, in those strange topaz eyes of his.

Nick could still feel a jolt of inner surprise at the notion of L'Oiseau as a double agent. That was surely the best-kept secret of all time at Whitehall, where so-called secrets appeared in the newspapers on a regular basis! Although if any one of those quill-scratching, nib-chewing paper rustlers knew what he knew about The White Wolf -- what the devil did it matter though? No one would believe him. At times he could hardly believe it himself. In the small cold hours of a sleepless night he sometimes thought he must have dreamed the events of that foggy night years ago when he'd strolled along the Seine, thinking of Chantal, and blindly turned down the wrong street only to find -- God! It didn't bear thinking on. Maybe he had dreamed it. Probably it was best to believe that he had. And since he'd lost his memory of that night in the chateau, he could put paid to any real sense of reliance on his previously perfect memory. But then, if what L'Oiseau had written was even only partly true, Nick could no longer trust himself at all, nor be trusted.

According to the unnamed witness, Nick had, in a fit of insanity, tortured and slain Colonel DeVergesse in a manner so heinous and appalling as to demand his immediate dismissal. Some fool had actually called for him to be tried for murder, but was quickly hushed up by the suggestion that the people of Great Britain would be up in arms against the government if word got out that an Englishman was to be tried for murdering a French officer. After all, Britain was at war with France, so how could the killing of a French colonel by a British intelligence agent in the act of escaping prison be construed by low, uninformed minds as anything other than an act of war?

The Board of Inquiry knew better though, knew that there are rules which must be adhered to even in the thickest of battles; and so while they could not act publicly against Nick in a criminal case, they could and did dismiss him from service, with strong warnings to him about being watched for further attempted criminal and murderous acts. In other words, with the slightest of excuses, he could find himself clapped in chains and locked away or even transported. With a faint touch of his old arrogance, he doubted England had yet made the gaol that could long hold him. But did he want to be a fugitive? At the moment, he hardly had energy enough to dress himself without assistance, let alone contemplate life on the run from dogged authorities.

Had he not been so ill during the entire proceedings against him, Nick knew he would have been devastated by his dismissal. For the past five years, he had lived for his work, relishing the intrigue and danger and constant activity. Strange that even now, a fortnight on from his dismissal, he was still so lackadaisical that he could not rouse himself to any feelings of anger or resentment toward Whitehall. He noted with great objectivity their hypocrisy, which allowed and sanctioned the taking of life at their "request and requirement," but forbade such acts otherwise, as if they truly believed the end justified the means. Still, he had known their rules, had accepted them, and had lived by them right up until the moment of Chantal's death. And that was his last clear memory in the chateau, hearing Chantal whisper "Satisfaction!" and begging her not to go. Then, again according to the unnamed witness, all rules and civilized behavior had gone out the window: There was only Nick and a knife and DeVergesse, all behind a barred door that had taken the French soldiers far too long to batter down to be of any assistance to their Colonel. No, Nick didn't remember doing those things to DeVergesse, though he couldn't find it in himself to regret them if he had.

And, he thought with a wry smile that displayed more cynicism than amusement, it was not as if he had actually killed DeVergesse. Not directly at any rate. Apparently when faced with living as the wreck of a man that Nick had allegedly made of him, that Gallic swine had chosen to take his own life. In his madness Nick had not left the colonel with a great many options. He had left it to Etienne to choose whether life was still worth living once Nick had completed his handiwork. For very much the same reason Chantal had ceased to value her life, Etienne had opted to end his own.

From the moment of her death until he had awakened in his own bed in London, Nick had no certain memory of events. Occasionally a scene flashed brilliantly and fleetingly through his mind, eluding permanent capture, but he always recognized it for a memory rather than a half-forgotten dream. That moment when the elegant predator he knew as L'Oiseau cupped Nick's face in his hands: A whisper of a thought had surfaced that L'Oiseau would kill him, but either his hearing was not working or the man was a mute because Nick could not make out a single word L'Oiseau was saying to him. L'Oiseau! What a silly name for a ravening beast. A pristine white handkerchief, with a tiny wolf's head embroidered in one corner, had been pressed to Nick's face and came away smeared with blood. Then there was only greyness, and a vaguely distant feeling of nausea and fever as rough hands thrust him under the thwarts of a small boat, and a voice threatening someone's life if anything happened to the English. He could remember a horrible noise, as if some barely restrained beast was giving voice to a need for blood, and then he was falling...but suddenly there was Splinter to catch him.

A long and painful bout of fever had robbed him of his usual verve while at the same time Chantal's death seemed to have stolen his raison d'etre. His mind wandered aimlessly when he was awake, but he still slept long, dreamless hours. Awake, he told himself that he slept so much only because his recovery from the fever was slow; but when his consciousness was in that gray area just between waking and sleeping, at those times he knew that he slept so that he wouldn't have to be alone with himself. Alone with the murdering bastard he had become.

The door opened and a tall, thin figure entered, bearing a tea tray.

Nick sighed. It lacked at least half an hour until teatime, but this early service was by now recognizable as a part of Splinter's relentless campaign to restore his master's health. Every meal was served early and a bewildering array of dishes was offered in what was to date a vain effort to tempt Nick's appetite. As Splinter settled the heavy tray in place, Nick ran a weary eye over its contents: Raisin buns, cream cakes, apple tart, bread and butter, as well as an entire plate of tiny delicacies that Nick was hard-pressed to identify.

"Shall I pour for you, sir?" offered Splinter helpfully.

"No, thank you, Splinter. I daresay I can manage that much for myself," Nick said patiently.

"Mrs. Splinter made the apple tart special, sir, knowing as how it's a favorite of yours," the servant said meaningfully.

"And I promise I will make an effort today," Nick rejoindered with great solemnity, knowing his duty to this loyal and concerned pair of servants demanded no less. He felt a bit guilty when Splinter's face was suddenly lit with hope, for even his best effort was not likely to meet with approval by either of the Splinters. Forcing down even so much as a morsel or two of food was like to choke him nowadays. Gad! He was like some die-away miss fallen into a decline. Maybe there was some truth to that nonsense ladies spouted about dying of a broken heart. And yet -- he mourned Chantal, ached for the tragedy she had embodied, but knew instinctively time would ease the pain of his loss. No, the loss he felt he might never recover from was the loss of himself: The loss of control over his own actions that resulted in his butchery of DeVergesse. The loss of memory surrounding that act. He had altogether lost himself somehow, and he had no least notion what was to be done about it. What had happened to him? How had he gone from having absolute control over himself to having so little he could barely eat or walk?

He should have let Splinter pour the tea, he realized, watching the door close as the servant left him. Getting up and pouring was more effort than he cared to put forth, but Mrs. Splinter was just forceful enough to try and spoon-feed him if he didn't make some inroads, however small, on her culinary presentations. Struggling to his feet, one hand gripping the arm of his chair for support, he was about to take his first shaky step when the door burst open and havoc reigned.

Nick had no warning save for one loud and fierce bark before he was easily toppled by a brute of a dog so huge that his paws were nearly the size of Nick's hands. Down he went under the onslaught of fur, teeth and drooling jaws that parted long enough to give a piercing bay of victory over the human, before he flopped down heavily on Nick's chest, flashing his incisors in way that made Nick swear the beast was laughing at him.

"Oh, hell and damnation!" he swore. "Splinter! Splinter! Confound it! Come and get this monster off me."

A long silvery strand of saliva dangled from the dog's gaping jaws, disgustingly close to Nick's face.

"Devil take you, Charley! You great, stupid ­ don't do that! If ever I get up off this floor I'm going to have you shot and fed to the crows. Stop it, sir, stop it, I say!" This as the happy creature slurped out a pink tongue appearing to be no less than a foot in length, and after wiping its own face with this portable washcloth proceeded to thoroughly and insistently lave Nick's features as well.

"DAMN you! Splinter, for the love of -- !"

Only after Splinter had finally managed to drag Charley away and banish him from the library, did Nick suddenly realize two other people had witnessed the entire scene. The same two people, he thought sourly as a flush of embarrassment stained his cheekbones, who had carelessly let that damnable mongrel into the same room with him in the first place! Charley had been an acceptably obnoxious beast when he had held a thorough contempt of Nick, but the abrupt change in the mongrel's attitude after Nick's illness, from snarling nemesis to uncontrollably adoring lapdog, was overwhelming. Nick could not fathom the reason for the change; the dog simply had not enough self-control to communicate in the way Nick understood other creatures, and he could not summon the energy required to discipline the dog properly.

"Well," he drawled from his position on a comfortably well-worn Persian rug, "make yourself useful, Lieutenant Hornblower, and give me a hand up. Hetty, my dear, how wonderful to see you. No, no. No need to ask, dear lady, just help yourself to the tea tray."

If the obvious weight loss and physical weakness of his host surprised Lieutenant Hornblower, he swiftly covered his shock, effortlessly hauling the smaller man to his feet and assisting him back into his chair.

Exhaustion left Nick's fine features strained now, the color drained from his face. Even so, a tiny, charismatic smile of pleasure played at the corners of his mouth.

"Yes, those cream cakes do look scrumptious, don't they?" he addressed Mrs. Bracegirdle before she could speak. "I'm sure Lieutenant Hornblower would care for a cup of tea, would you not, sir? And won't you please allow me to call you Horatio? We are not aboard ship now and 'Lieutenant Hornblower' is such a fatiguing mouthful, on top of which the doctors have told me I must conserve my strength. To what end I am not certain, but with one notable exception, I do follow orders extremely well," Nick said dryly.

When Mrs. Bracegirdle and the Lieutenant had made courteous noises of greeting, exclaiming over their fortuitously simultaneous arrival on his doorstep, she poured out tea for both men, ignoring as if deaf Nick's refusal to partake of the lavish refreshments and carefully placing cup and saucer in both his hands. She then disposed herself in grande dame fashion behind the tray and tucked in greedily to the treats arrayed there.

Nick stared somewhat bemused at the cup in his hands, and noted logically that drinking its contents would lighten the burden of it. Taking one small sip, he grimaced at the amount of sugar Hetty had ladled in, then laid his head wearily against the high back of the chair and surveyed his unexpected visitors.

Horatio looked agog with news, but also a trifle awkward about what and how much might be said before Mrs. Bracegirdle, while that lady, dressed with unusual flair in a well-cut gown of India muslin and a fine Paisley shawl in muted colours, munched her way in rapid succession through the cakes, buns and tarts.

"Nicholas," she managed between mouthfuls, "why ever did you not let me know you were ill? Dear boy, I would have sent 'round some of Dr. Pharaoh's Stimulating Elixir of Healthful Herbs."

"That is precisely why you were not notified," Nick muttered.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Hetty," he said calmly, drawing on a vast reserve of patience, "how many times must I tell you that so-called elixir is nothing more than gin with a touch of onion juice?"

"Nonsense!" She waved a pudgy hand in dismissal. "I am a member of the Ladies of London Temperance League. I would not touch a drop of gin was I crying with thirst," she declared with the complete self-assurance of the entirely ignorant.

"Better not let the Temperance Leaguers catch you drinking the stuff then. You'll be drummed out of the corps," he warned. "What are you looking so lost and forlorn for? Oh, out of raisin buns, eh? I would urge you to ring for more, but I'm afraid the bell is broken," he lied blandly. "Do but go and tell Mrs. Splinter what you require. You will find her in the kitchen, no doubt."

Sending out a silent plea to Mrs. Splinter for forgiveness, as there would be no budging Hetty for at least half an hour from the land of milk and honey, not to mention the land of teacakes, puddings and biscuits, or until she had eaten her fill, Nick fondly watched his friend bustle away in search of the larder.

Then, lowering his eyelids until he was viewing Horatio through the merest slits, he said softly, "Well, Horatio, if you were not so slender I would say you are looking positively pregnant with news, sir."
CHAPTER 27

Horatio's eyebrows rose for an instant, fell again, and a slow, wide smile improved an already handsome countenance.

"Mr. Collins," he began.

"Nick," came the interjection.

"Nick, then." Horatio took a deep breath. "I have solved the cipher!"

Nick continued to stare steadily, unnervingly, from beneath lowered lids at the young officer.

"My felicitations on your ingenuity, Horatio. Allow me to note that you have already secured the submersible and its inventor for the benefit of His Majesty. Only yesterday I read in the Gazette of some prize ship or other you have brought in. And you have solved the cipher, no doubt capturing a villain and winning the eternal gratitude of your captain. Your career is very much on the rise, my good fellow. I would be doing you a grave disservice did I not warn you that the merest hint of an association with me now could bring that career crashing down about your ears. The very act of calling on me will be noted and reported on."

The length of this speech seemed to exhaust Nick even further, as his eyes fully closed and he seemed to slump a little deeper into his chair.

A long pause ensued, which Hornblower broke by saying, "I have heard whispers, sir -- Nick, I will not deny it. Ugly whispers, which if true --." He shook his head in consternation. "One of the first lessons I learned from the finest gentleman of my acquaintance was to judge a man by what I see him do, not by what others say he has done. You saved Captain Pellew's life. You assisted seaman Styles to escape a French prison at apparently no small cost to you personally, judging by your recent illness. But you are wrong, sir. I have not caught the villain. I am not even close. But I believe you can help bring that person to justice."

Nick shook his head, still missing the feathery brush of his hair on his neck and cheeks. Some block of a physician who was never admitted to the house again afterward had cut off the long black curls as a precaution against the fever. Splinter had managed to put a halt to that idiocy before Nick had been entirely scalped, and his hair was now cropped only a bit longer than was fashionable. He hated it. His head felt naked and it seemed to add to the indignity of weakness he already endured.

"How is Styles?" Nick digressed. "Is his leg mending?"

"He does very well," Horatio assured him, aware of, though not fully understanding the unusual friendship between these two very different men. "I wish you might have seen him when we pulled him from the water. Giddy as a girl, and longing to use the parachute again! I would be pleased to carry a message to him from you, if you like. I do not exaggerate when I tell you it would please him enormously. He thinks very highly of you. Indeed, you have a number of enthusiasts in the ship's company."

Nick sipped at his tea again. "When are you away?"

"So soon as I return to Falmouth. I go by coach tomorrow."

"Falmouth? Why there? Why not --? Never mind." Nick struggled to quell his natural curiosity, while also trying to draw himself up and appear a bit more dignified. "Mr. Hornblower, regardless of your ­ your admirable restraint regarding the rumours you might have heard about me, you must know that I no longer work for the Crown. I have been forbidden to participate further in any intelligence-gathering efforts, I must discontinue associating with those people who previously made up my group of informants and, um, fellow agents. In short, I am dismissed and must seek new employment. No, wait a moment." He sipped again at his tea, now cold, but it did seem to revive him a touch. "I think you must have come here in the belief that I can further pursue the information from that cipher. I cannot. Not only am I physically incapable of doing so, but the moment I begin delving into the underworld of information, if I should even attempt contact with those who could best help you ­ I will be arrested."

Lieutenant Hornblower appeared stymied by the blow of Nick's firm denial. Good, he thought. Horatio had to be made to realize the harm he had done himself merely by calling on Nick. As always though, Horatio began evaluating methods by which the problem of Pellew's assassin might still be addressed without Collins running foul of the authorities. He did not feel secure in taking the cipher to Whitehall. Whoever the villain was, he had managed to get two assassins placed aboard ship, and that required someone with pull. He kept coming back to Nick. There was simply no else he knew. But what about those people Nick knew?

"There must be someone you can trust?" Horatio suggested. "Someone who would not be under the same scrutiny as yourself, but who could be directed by you?"

Nick shook his head.

"Of course there is," declared a voice from the doorway.

Both men turned their heads to examine Hetty as she stood there, clasping a tray of spice cakes to her bosom. A flicker of genuine dismay crossed Horatio's face. Nick's eyes widened and a faint spark of life began to burn there, as a tiny vertical crease formed between his elegantly arched brows. "Of course there is," he agreed smoothly, noting Horatio's reaction with some amusement. "Hetty, my angel, I find I am quite ravished with hunger after all. Be so good as to share one of those cakes with me, won't you?" He caught her hand as she brought him the cake, and raised her sticky fingers to his lips. Hetty! Why had he not realized? Yes, she was ideal for the task. He would have to lead her carefully, of course, as the risk for both of them could prove significant. But she would rattle in, game as a pebble and merry as a grig, he was certain of it.

"Bless you, my dear," he said solemnly. "You may regret this at some future time. We both may. But you shall be my eyes and ears, and with the information from Horatio's cipher, we will make a start on flushing out Captain Pellew's enemies."

Hetty nodded, swallowing a mouthful of cake before stating baldly that they must do their all to protect Sir Edward, he had so nearly become her husband after all that she felt quite responsible for him. Horatio rolled his eyes, but Nick said simply, "Was he, my dear? Then we must certainly give our best efforts."

Horatio felt bound to protest Mrs. Bracegirdle's involvement. "Mr. Collins ­ Nick! Really, I do not think --."

"Trust me, Horatio." Nick's level gaze and measured words were reassuring. "I know this business. Hetty will do very well. She is a woman of remarkable resource. Besides, I shall be guiding her steps. What can go wrong?" he asked lightly.

Horatio shuddered.

CHAPTER 28

Nick wisely gave the young lieutenant no time for further protests.

"May I see the results of your clever mind, please, Horatio? And tell me how you came to solve this puzzle? I know a trick or two for decoding messages, but when a cipher is keyed, as this one seemed to be, it is very nearly impossible to decode. I thought that perhaps the key would be in the book where I found the cipher. Was I right?"

Horatio shook his head as he unfolded a paper and handed it across to Nick, observing a fine tremor of exhaustion in the lean hand that accepted it.

"No, although the book was a clue to the key. The day you and Styles were taken to Montfeuille, Matthews and I ­ ah, um ­ persuaded Mr. Fulton to accompany us and turn his submersible over to His Majesty's government. We were resting on a beach a little ways south of the chateau, and I kept turning the numbers of the cipher round and round in my head. I kept playing with the title, 'Paradise Lost,' trying to make the letters and numbers correspond. Forwards, backwards, nothing seemed to work. Just as I was about to fall asleep, I remembered one evening aboard ship when Captain Pellew was quizzing a new midshipman on his duties and he quoted Milton: 'Each act is rightliest done not when it must, but when it may be best.'"

Horatio paused, remembering.

Nick turned the quotation over in his mind as he puzzled over the numbers before declaring, "I still do not see the clue."

A sly grin crept over Horatio's countenance, widening until his smile was brilliant.

"The passage is from 'Paradise Regained," he explained.

"The devil you say!" Nick was thunderstruck for a moment, then fell to laughing. "A most inappropriate expression in any discussion of Milton's work, I have no doubt. But I do beg your pardon, Hetty, I did not mean to swear in your presence."

She waved away his apology with one pudgy hand. "Not at all, dear boy. I do not care for Milton myself, but Edward has always been fond of his work. I often think he might have made a very stern bishop if the sea had not called to him so insistently. So the key to your puzzle is this other poem?" she asked Horatio while downing the last spice cake and looking with sad resignation at the again-empty tray.

"Yes, ma'am. As soon as I began using the letters in the word 'regained' that were not already in the word 'paradise' the cipher nearly solved itself."

"But there are numbers here with no letters," Nick was studying the document closely.

"Yes," Horatio nodded. "I was swinging in the stays for a bit until I determined that every seventh number in the first and third column has no value. It is the third number in the second column. Yet the cipher itself reads left to right, across the columns."

Nick's black eyes glowed with amazement as he peered over the top of the paper at Horatio.

"You are a mathematical genius, sir! Styles was right about you, more right than I could have dreamed. He said if there was a problem no one knew anything about then the man to see was Mr. Hornblower. 'Gifted-like,' was the term he used." Realizing his praise was putting the lanky lieutenant to the blush, Nick added, "Shall we hear what is in the cipher then?" He cast an amused glance at Hetty as she clasped sticky palms together and straightened her posture into an attitude of breathless anticipation.

"'Pellew alive. Two arrested.' So much we already knew," Nick added as an aside before continuing. " 'Black Plague at Ushant. Gatekeeper too frightened to pursue matter further, has cut off my access. He is not to be trusted. Must handle matter from London now.' Ah, yes, and our author concludes with the plea of every hired villain to send payment forthwith for services rendered."

"I wonder if the writer will get his due?" Hetty pondered. "And do we need to worry about catching the plague?"

Nick's black gaze lost focus for a moment as he stared bleakly into the recent past. "You may rest assured, my dear Hetty, he has already received his just reward."

Remembering the nature of the rumours he had heard about Collins, Horatio sucked in a deep breath and muttered sotto voce, "Or gone to it, belike!"

The crease had reappeared between Nick's brows as he folded and unfolded the paper again and again.

"I confess I do not think there is a great deal of information to be had in the message," Horatio inserted into the silence that had fallen. Hetty shrugged. Nick continued to play with the document, reading it to himself again, folding it, unfolding it, reading it once more.

"Horatio," Nick said somewhat absently, "I should invite you to stay the night but that you have already harmed yourself by coming here and staying so long as you have. You leave for Falmouth tomorrow, you said. Which hotel are you putting up at? I should very much like to send a letter to Styles, but I haven't the strength to pen it just now. Splinter can bring it to you this evening an' you do not mind carrying it for me?"

"Not at all," came the polite response. "But I do not stay at a hotel. I am invited to make my berth at Ravenscar House."

Nick froze, his attention momentarily diverted from the matter at hand. "You stay with the Duke, then? You have friends in high places, Horatio," he charged, wishing away the faint note of accusation in his tone.

"His Grace is a life-long friend of Captain Pellew. I think the Duke likes to hear even second-hand news of his old friend." Horatio explained.

"No doubt he also appreciates the presence of one so diplomatic as yourself in such a --shall we say volatile? ­ household!"

Horatio suppressed a grin. "You are acquainted with His Grace and the Duchess, then?"

"No!" Nick realized his response was a trifle too forceful. "No, we have never met but, as is the case with most men of wealth and power, his reputation precedes him."

"You put me in mind of him at one time," Horatio confided.

"His Grace? I did? I cannot think why," Nick declared, staring at him hard. "You have never seen me in a state of intoxication or with unbridled temper." Then, shivering as he remembered L'Oiseau's account of his torture of DeVergesse, breathed earnestly, "Nor ever will, I trust."

"No," Horatio assured him. "It was just once when you were aboard the Inde and then only for a moment. That night we were to dine with the Captain and you looked at that bottle of claret on the sideboard with such a look of ­ I really cannot say. Appreciation, I suppose. Not the way a drunk would look at his drink, but as if, as if --."

"He looks at claret the way an artist studies a painting," Hetty finished for him. "For its merits, for light, colour, clarity, and meaning. Yes, you do, Nicholas! I have seen you do it several times. But never, never have you reminded me of Ravenscar! That dreadful soak! Now he is one who looks at a bottle as if it were his last hope of heaven. You are much more refined. And that is all I intend to say upon the matter!"

For which both men were thankful, and they exchanged a silent glance of mutual understanding.

"Back to the cipher," Horatio directed. "Can you make anything of it at all?"

Much to Horatio's relief, Nick nodded slowly.

"Oh, yes. Most certainly. I think you need not worry about catching a disease, Hetty. If the author were here today I believe he would confirm that the Black Plague is a reference to me."

"How very rude!" She was shocked. "You have not yet allowed me to read any of your poetry, but I daresay it cannot be as bad as all that."

Nick sighed with the weary patience of one who has fought this battle to a draw more than once. "I do not write poetry, nor have I ever written poetry," he insisted. "It is a
reference to my ­ my character."

Horatio nodded his agreement, but Mrs. Bracegirdle would have none of it.

"Oh, stuff and nonsense, Nicholas! You are forever prosing on about what a terrible person you are and the awful things you have done. You are a dear boy, my very favourite after My Beloved Basil and Edward, but you are sadly in danger of becoming monotonous," she reproached him sharply.

Nick lifted one shaky hand to cover his eyes.

"Am I, Hetty?" There was the faintest quiver in the small but earnest voice he gave to the question.

"Oh! Oh, my! Oh, dear boy! Dear Nicholas! I have overset you, and you so recently ill. No, no of course you are not." She assured him as she began ransacking her reticule for a handkerchief, tossing sweetmeats and bon-bons hither and yon in her search. "I never should have said such a thing when I KNOW how sensitive you are to the slightest censure. I am the greatest beast in nature to abuse you so. It is only that you try so hard to disguise that romantic aspect of your nature. Aha! Voila!" She produced a wrinkled scrap of silk and rocked her bulk forward until sheer inertia assisted her to rise, then scramble across the room to thrust the silk into Nick's hand, which still gripped the cipher. "And if you would only allow your true gifts to flourish freely, I am convinced you would not be so prone to the megrims."

Horatio's jaw dropped. Nick Collins prone to the megrims? It hardly seemed possible that a man of such daring -- a man who had jumped from the battlements of Montfeuille with only a silken sail for security! -- could be anything like the creature Mrs. Bracegirdle described. And yet there the man sat, handkerchief clutched to his eyes, his shoulders heaving like any sobbing schoolgirl. Then Nick lifted his face from the handkerchief for a fraction of a second, just long enough for Horatio to see the dark eyes wet with laughter. A chuckle welled up in Horatio's own throat but was ruthlessly quelled. He'd not give Nick away, and cleared his throat roughly before suggesting, "Perhaps the name is a reference to Nick's preference for dark clothing?"

Nick beamed at him in a conspiracy of amusement. Hetty considered that matter and reluctantly allowed as to its possibility. "For," she said, "it is true that for all the many times he has admired my own style of dress, I simply cannot persuade him into any but the most sober of colours. Oh, Nicholas! I saw the most ravishing waistcoat in Bond Street t'other day, of lime and coquelicot paisley brocade. It would suit you to a cow's thumb, I vow." She intercepted another glance between the two men, misinterpreted it entirely, and went on, "But you men must not forever be talking of fashions, you know. A man's life is at stake here," she reprimanded them, "and not just any man. Sir Edward!"

At a look from Nick, Horatio swallowed a protest while with the gravest of expressions Nick apologized for their frivolity and craved Mrs. Bracegirdle's forbearance, men being, as she had so often noted, tediously self-absorbed. A regal nod from the lady indicated her agreement, and once again Nick turned his attention to the cipher.

"I believe I know who this Gatekeeper may be, but I will need your assistance to prove it, Hetty. We must make a list of all the facts already at our disposal. I find that doing so sometimes helps lead me to see facts I was not aware I possessed. For example, this message indicates the conspiracy against Sir Edward is one of hired mercenaries headed up by a single entity ­ I cannot yet say whether the entity is a person or a nation or an organization. But this entity has also the power to see to it that specific men are assigned to specific ships. If we were to compose a list of men who have such power and another list of men in intelligence operations based in London who have some knowledge of the creation of ciphers, what do you suppose we might discover when we cross-reference these lists?"

"If not the killer, someone who is at least connected," Horatio said grimly.

"I have always held," Hetty began grandly, "that when one wants to know devious secrets a person hides, one need only examine their duns."

Horatio looked baffled. "I don't understand how that relates to the lists. We cannot examine anyone's duns until we have some notion who we are looking for."

Nick nodded. "She is right. There is always money involved in any scheme, legitimate or otherwise. These are hired killers. There ought to be a trail of money. Where was the Indefatigable when Mahoney and Phibbs were transferred to the ship's company?"

The cipher suddenly fell from Nick's grasp and he shot an angry glance at the hand, which had again betrayed his weakness. He looked up to see Horatio rising from the settle. And now even Hetty was looking at him with concern and pity in those round, brown eyes.

"I think, Nick, it might be best if we take our leave of you now. We have stayed too long and you are not long out of the sick berth," Horatio was firm. "I will write down all I know of those two villains, and also the names of those men at both Ushant and the Admiralty who control assignments. I shall have my list ready for your man when he brings your letter for Styles."

"No," Nick said testily, angry that his body's need for rest was so obvious while his spirit seemed to have once again come to life and shaken off the apathy that had clung to him since he had awakened in England. "Send your notes by messenger to Hetty. I'd not put it past the minders they've set to watch me to detain Splinter. I very much doubt they would do so to a lady of -- of your reputation, m'dear," he gestured to her.

"I shall always carry a parasol," she announced. "Let them dare even try to block my path!"

Nick shook hands with Horatio, ashamed of his frail grasp, then brushed a kiss on Hetty's knuckles as he begged her pardon for not rising to see them out.

"Pish tush! Splinter will be waiting just outside to show us out, I'll wager." She tugged a reluctant glove onto one gummy paw.

"Would you be so kind as to send him to me after?" Nick asked.

From his chair he could see when they entered the street, a mismatched pair he mused with some humour: The long and lanky Horatio looking like Jack Sprat to Hetty's hefty Mrs. Sprat.

When Splinter came in and asked if Master Nick would care to retire upstairs, Nick swore softly, then apologized to the startled servant.

"I am sorry, old man, I'm not angry with you, not a'tall. All of a sudden there are a hundred things I ought to be doing and damned if I can even drag my own weight up a single flight of stairs."

"Just lean on me, sir. You'll be upstairs in two shakes of a lamb's tail." Splinter wanted to jump for joy that the master was finally speaking of wanting to do things. He could hardly wait to tell the Mrs. She would think it was her baking what had done the trick, but if she'd only seen Master Nick looking out the window at his friends, a funny little smile on his face, she'd know better!

As the two men made their way slowly up the narrow staircase, Nick paused once to steady himself, and said penitently, "Splinter, I hate to be a burden on your wife. She has fairly knocked herself out cooking to please me this past fortnight, to no avail. And I know she must have her menu already planned. But, do you suppose we might have a roast chicken for supper tonight?"

Splinter grasped Nick's elbow again as he started upwards once more. He felt a peculiar itching around his eyes and swiftly rubbed away the bit of moisture that seemed to be causing the problem.

"Bless you, sir," he said hoarsely. "You'll have your chicken or my name's not Ephraim Splinter!"

CHAPTER 29

Bright August sunlight filled the corners of Nick's bedroom, caroming off the one or two reflective objects it found there: An elegantly-chased silver box which if opened would have displayed a similarly worked pair of Joseph Manton's finest dueling pistols, and a silver-gilt framed cheval mirror that stood in one corner.

The pistols had been a gift from the Old Gentleman upon the successful completion of Nick's first assignment. The entire caper had been a complete shambles, though not through any fault of Nick's, and he had worked his way through some hairbreadth escapes which, no matter how flat and unembellished the telling, had sent the Old Gent into paroxysms of glee, rubbing his hands together in delight at the discomfiture of the French Republic. The cheval mirror was yet another reminder of that initial assignment and was placed strategically in the corner as a result of one of the many lessons Nick had learned by very nearly dying first. The habit of seating himself facing a door, or if that were not possible, to face mirrors which reflected doors was now so ingrained he seldom gave it conscious thought.

Mirrors, however, were the farthest things from his mind on this sunny morning, as he sat in bed, propped up by half a dozen bolsters. On his lap was a leather-topped writing case, and his dark curly head was bent over it as he scribbled furiously at a sheet of parchment, moving the quill from the paper to the small inkwell and back to the paper again so swiftly that there was scarcely a pause in his lettering. Beside him on the bed was a tray with a pot of chocolate, a toast rack only half-full, and a dish with several rashers of bacon and two poached eggs which seemed to stare at him reproachfully whenever his glance wandered in their direction, although that was not often as his entire attention seemed bent on placing as much ink onto the paper in the shortest amount of time possible. He neared the bottom of the page and dipped the quill once more, seemingly oblivious to the presence of a slow, silent hand stealing past the bed curtains towards him.

"Do not even consider taking that toast," Nick warned, without so much as glancing away from his work.

A distinctly musical laugh chimed out.

"You've not lost your touch, m'lad." Robin Halliwell, ninth Earl of St. James and the possessor of one of England's largest fortunes, moved into view as silently as he had entered the room and sat down on the bed, one knee drawn up as he reviewed the offerings on the tray. "Are you having this bacon?"

"We'll share it," Nick finally looked up, taking in the fair countenance and finer attire of his friend. "My! You're looking fine as a fivepence. What is the occasion, and never tell me you are dressed to the nines merely on my account?"

Robin preened a bit, shooting his cuffs to display a fall of fine grey lace around his wrists. "What do you think? It is le dernier cri, you know, to have coloured lace."
"I had no idea," Nick drawled gravely.

"Of course you hadn't, I only just decided on it last night. I am having some done up in a blue to match my eyes. I fear the ladies will all go off into spasms of ecstasy, but a man does what he must in the name of fashion, n'est-ce pas?" He smoothed a crease from one sleeve and met Nick's black gaze with the studied look of a man resigned to an unpleasant duty.

"Popinjay!" Nick accused softly. Then, "Thank you for coming so quickly. I more than half feared Splinter would not find you to home last night."

"Oh, but yesterday was an exhausting one! I had to stay in, I was well nigh worn to the bone." Robin left off admiring his lace and began making what Nick privately considered to be Hetty-like inroads into the bacon.

"Have those eggs as well, if you've a mind to," he offered with a slight shudder. "I cannot bear the way they simply stare at me."

Robin studied the plate for a moment, a piece of bacon just at his lips and head cocked slightly to one side. "No, nor me," he finally decided. "They do have something of the look of a Grand Inquisitor to them, don't they? Let's cover them," he suggested, "and then we may talk freely." Picking up the serviette, he shook it open with a flourish and drew it over the plate. "Et voila!"

"What was so exhausting about yesterday?" Nick inquired.

"Beg pardon?" Robin was eyeing the toast again.

"Not the toast," Nick said firmly, taking a piece for himself and biting into it. "I asked you about yesterday, why you were tired."

"You did not hear? My dear Nick, you have been too long out of the world! I met Spencer yestermorn."

"Yes, but what --. Good God! You dueled with Lord Spencer?" Nick was aghast, then more pragmatically said, "You must not have killed him or you'd not be in England this morning."

"Of course not," Robin was scornful. "Do you take me for a fool? I pinked him neatly and there's an end to it."

"One can only hope that is indeed the case," his friend replied dryly. "Are you still so enamoured of the fair Julia then?"

Robin yawned delicately. "Dear boy, I am done with her at last. Spencer may keep her with my greatest good will. I have seen the woman of my dreams this very morning. If her personality is only half so charming as her appearance, I shall make her my bride before the year is out."

Now Nick was really shocked, for he thought he detected a note of sincerity in Robin's light talk.

"You jest! When have you ever given a thought to marriage?" he scoffed.

"Since I evaded your watchers by going through your neighbour's garden this morning, whereupon I had the great good fortune to find the sweetest flower I ever beheld."

Nick nodded in understanding, as he felt a door in his heart slam closed with solid finality. "You met Miss Tate, I gather?"

Robin flashed a devastatingly attractive smile. "Not officially. Not yet. But soon, very soon, you may believe."

Nick did believe him. Besides being out of all reason handsome, with his fair hair, dark blue eyes and classic features, Robin was the essence of charm. He loved women, and they loved him right back. There was nothing affected in his attitude, his compliments were sincere and his manners so graceful and natural that he could put even the coldest gimlet-eyed dragon of a chaperone at complete ease. And being the possessor of a king's fortune did not hurt him a whit in anyone's eyes.

"She is a charming girl," Nick affirmed and went on to warn him. "But do not trifle with her. She is no Lady Spencer to be picked up and put down as you choose."

Robin raised a wary eyebrow. "Do I trespass upon your preserves, my dear fellow?"

Nick shook his head, once again missing the brush of curls along his neck and cheek. "Not at all. It is merely that I know Miss Tate to be without the guile and snares that the Julia Spencers and the Kitty Cobhams of the world use so ruthlessly and to such good effect."

Robin went still for a moment at the mention of Kitty, then met Nick's solemn stare, and sighed. "You're trying to distract me. Very well, I will allow it. I had a letter from Kitty only last week. She is married to a nabob now and seems quite happy to be removed from all the intrigue of London. Nick," he paused thoughtfully, "would you ­ would you really have --?"

"Yes."

"Because she would have betrayed England?"

"I was neither her judge nor jury," Nick said simply. "I had orders."

"But very nearly her executioner!" exclaimed Robin.

"Had I not been detained by a pair of the greatest rascals I ever had the misfortune to encounter you would not now be saying 'very nearly.' How much did you have to pay them to set those dogs on me?" he asked curiously.

"More than you might think. One of them knew you by sight and was afraid you would kill his mongrel."

"Was that the fellow whose dog was missing one ear? He'll kill the poor brute himself if he keeps putting him into fights."

Robin nodded before going on to speculate, "I don't think you would have killed Kitty, you know. You knew I was going to get her away if I could, and I think you would have permitted me. But I couldn't chance it, could I?"

Nick brushed away the crumbs from his nightshirt, careful not to meet that sparkling blue gaze. "Don't think I have a conscience, Rob, for I don't. I would have done it. How can you doubt it? You have heard much worse of me."

Robin almost snorted. "That letter from the agent at Montfeuille? Well, I can believe you went after DeVergesse. I can most certainly believe you killed him. But gruesome torture was never your style, old boy. I have a good deal of doubt about you carving him into tiny pieces while he --. What? Gad, you're turning positively green!" he exclaimed.

Nick fell back against the bolsters, his eyes closed, his complexion ashen.

"What is it, Nick? Do you want me to call Splinter? A physician?" Robin was frightened by Nick's sudden collapse.

"No, no," he protested feebly. "I'll be all right. Give me a minute. I just ­ I just" There was a dawning horror in his eyes when he opened them.

"You've remembered," Robin whispered.

Nick nodded, still looking faintly sick. "Not all of it. Not much at all. But ­ enough."
CHAPTER 30

Robin poured out a cup of the chocolate and watched in some concern as Nick swallowed it without pause.

"Care to talk about it?" he inquired offhandedly.

"I do not!" Nick averred with a lift to his chin.

Robin was almost relieved. "I doubt if I should really want to hear the ghastly details of anything that could unsettle you so. 'Let us not burthen our remembrance with a heaviness that's gone.' Oh, dammitall, Nick!" he swore abruptly.

Nick was startled. "I recognize that bit from The Tempest, but I'm fairly certain the curse was not Shakespeare."

"No, confound it! I wagered Marchmont I could pass an entire day without quoting the Bard once. Not even noon and I have already lost." The young Earl's entire aspect was one of self-disgust.

Nick smiled wryly. Robin was forever quoting Shakespeare; it seemed to Nick as if there was no line writ by the great playwright which Rob had not committed to memory, for he had an astonishing ability to always bring forth an apt passage without ever seeming to give the matter conscious thought.

"And now who is distracting whom?" He raised a languid hand in mock protest. "No, no, I can be as gracious as yourself and allow it."

Robin chuckled at this impersonation of himself. "Perhaps we should have done with digressions altogether and discuss instead why you so urgently requested my presence."

Nick nodded, his expression sober again. "You were aware of my assignment regarding Sir Edward Pellew?"

"Not until the, er, recent inquest, if I may so name it, into the Montfeuille matter. Most of the Old Gentleman's operations are now in Whitehall's hands. Like Pontius Pilate, I try to keep mine clean nowadays. The new regime, however, thinks to placate me by allowing me to attend certain functions. In fact, I have a standing invitation to witness all courts martial -- can you imagine my joy?" His tone dripped sarcasm, and he raised the back of one hand to his brow in imitation of a swoon. "Your little proceeding was an unofficial court martial, because they cannot officially acknowledge what you have officially been doing all along was with their unofficial blessing. At any rate, I know you were ordered to guard Sir Edward's life, which I gather you did very well considering your talents run in altogether the opposite direction."

"Unfortunately his life is still at risk, from the same person or persons who arranged for the previous attempts on his life," Nick told him. "I intercepted a most unusual cipher and --" here he sat up and thrusting the paper he had been writing inside the case, he withdrew another and handed it to Robin. "And I need your help to finish this list of names I have begun."

Robin took the paper and read down the list, his eyebrows arching as he gave a low whistle.

" 'Such men are dangerous,' " he quoted a soft warning to his friend. "There are some very powerful men on this list, as well as some names I do not recognize. You think," he regarded the list with an intent blue stare, "Lord Spencer is a candidate for organizing the death of one of his captains?"

Nick shrugged, throwing aside the covers and forcing himself to stand. "He seems to bear the good captain a grudge. He once ordered Sir Edward to take command of a mutinous ship's company, and refused the man any help in the task by not allowing him to take with him any officers or men loyal to Pellew. If that isn't setting a man up for murder, it's as dashed close as I ever care to see. Not to mention that little incident you told me of yourself, when something Pellew said antagonized Spencer."

Robin was shaking his head even as he studied Nick's determined efforts to wash himself. The sight of that slender figure now so cruelly emaciated almost made him wince.

"That was years ago, the mutiny was. And Spencer wouldn't have one of his own captains murdered just for some imagined impertinence. He's a vengeful man, to be sure, but not a murderous one."

Nick turned from the laborious task of lathering his face and stared at him in disbelief. "You can say that after having fought a duel with him only yesterday. Have you lost your wits entirely?"

Robin's laughter chimed. "That was merely a show of pride on his part. He knows as well as I do that he'd not the hopes of a snowball in Hades of wounding me. By the way, old man, that's a perfectly dreadful rag of a nightshirt. Must be like sleeping in steel wool. You need some really fine linen. Collier's does mine. I'll have him send you a dozen."

"What do I need with a dozen nightshirts?" Nick scoffed, a towel to his face. "I can only wear one at a time."

"I order them by the gross myself. A gentleman must ever have need of a clean, soft nightshirt. It simply is not possible to have too many." Robin's expression was all innocence.

"Fribble!"

"Philistine!"

"Fop! Leave off and help me find my clothes." Nick was leaning against a chest and tugging with one hand at a drawer.

"Oh, sit down and try not to have a relapse." Robin gently pushed his friend toward a chair and began a ruthless pillaging of the chest of drawers. "You need a valet."

"I have Splinter," Nick defended himself.

"Well, no offense intended to him, because although he has been enormously helpful on some of your wilder escapades, he has no sense of style whatsoever. Good gad! What do you call this contraption?" He held up a peculiarly shaped pad, about the size of a large bolster, with various lengths of straps attached.

"Be careful with that, don't pull off any of the ties. That's a ­ um, a, uh ­ well, I don't know what the devil it's called, but I wore it on my backside that time I went to Devonshire House disguised as Lady Engleby. She has a very pronounced derriere; it's quite unmistakable. That's why the disguise was so successful. No one ever looks at her face."

"Well, what do you want with it now?" the Earl demanded.

"One never knows, does one?" Nick relaxed into a parody of Robin's posture. "I order them by the gross myself. A gentleman must ever have need of a clean, soft thingamabob. It simply is not possible to have too many." His expression was a perfect mirror of Robin's own earlier declaration.

Robin threw up his hands and looked to heaven. " 'I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men!' Henry the Fourth. Here, take these. They are abominable but the best I can find here."

Nick looked sadly at the clothing in his lap, and up again with a wounded expression on his face. "This is my best evening wear, my lord," he said stiffly.

Robin caught his breath at his own faux pas, then caught the wicked glint in Nick's eye, and let out his breath with an exasperated sigh.

" 'You are not worth another word, else I'd call you knave.' I'd call you a good deal worse than that, in fact! Get some other earl to play valet for you in future."

Nick chuckled, not for the first time reveling inwardly at the return of emotions to his frozen soul.

"I'd not have you as valet, you're too uppity by half. One of Society's Spoiled Darlings. What about some of those other names on the list? Caswell, Peppington, Young, Lynch ­ they all deal with enciphering to one degree or another. Can you see any connexion between one of them and the others?"

Robin thought about it carefully while Nick dressed. At last he handed the paper back to his friend, then proceeded to tie his cravat for him. "There's no obvious link that I can think of. But you may not have the complete list of cipherers, you know. The Duke of Ravenscar maintains his own intelligence organization. Always has. Used to drive m'grandfather crazy. He hated Ravenscar anyway. Something to do with the last duke, the current one's father, I think. I've always suspected it was a romance gone bad but never could prove it. And the Old Gentleman was bested once or twice by the current duke in the intelligence arena, which finally soured him on the whole family. What the devil! Nick! You've gone stark white again. Here, come and sit down again while I fetch some brandy." He was holding Nick up by the shoulders.

"No, no, it was just a bad moment or two. I'm all right now." Nick straightened up and brushed off his friend's concern. "So suppose you go and talk to Ravenscar, see if you can find out who his cipherers are? You're both peers of the realm and all that. He'll respect you. Just a name is all I need to go on. I hear he's a connoisseur of the grape. Take him one or two good bottles of claret, loosen his tongue," he suggested cynically.

Robin handed him a brush for his hair, but balked huffily at the proposition. "No chance! His Grace would as lief run me through as look at me. Liefer, in fact. By some mischance he once caught me with my arms round the Duchess. All a mistake, I assured him. It was dark and I was expecting someone else. Would he listen? Damned if he would. Sliced off a lace stock I paid 8 guineas for. He'd have sliced off my head if I hadn't been quick enough. Not so much as an en garde out of him either."

"Well, I certainly cannot ask him." Nick frowned. "He doesn't know me from Adam's off-ox."

"It's because the resemblance is so uncanny," drawled the Earl.

"What?" Nick stared at him hard. "What d'you mean by that?"

"Don't get in a lather! I've insulted your looks before. Gad, you're prickly these days. Almost as bad as Ravenscar."

Nick suddenly realized what Robin had meant and grinned. "Good thing I've no sword to hand then." Robin's eyes lit at the prospect. Nick was the one truly fine swordsman of his acquaintance. Not conventional in his technique perhaps, but always a challenge.

"Maybe Hetty knows him," Nick was still talking. "She knows everybody. I'll ask her. She can always threaten to eat everything in the house if he won't tell her."

"You refer to Mrs. Bracegirdle?"

At Nick's nod, Robin's expression turned dubious. "Hate to break it to you, lad, but Ravenscar hates her, too. Poked her busy nose into His Grace's affairs once too often. Doubt if Mrs. Bracegirdle would even get past that mortician posing as Ravenscar's butler. And if she did I still cannot see him freely discussing any part of his organization with her. No man can get that drunk."

"It's a good thing I am dressed then," Nick declared, taking Robin's arm for support as they exited the bedroom.

"You're not planning on going out?" At Nick's firm nod, "Sure you're up to it, Nick? The watchers will be all over you, and they won't trouble to hide themselves. They don't have to."

A tiny vertical line appeared between Nick's eyebrows.

"Hetty is coming to see me this morning. After that, I believe I must go shopping. A friend tells me I need some new clothes."

"Just don't purchase any of the Emperor's variety," Robin warned.

Nick laughed off his counsel. "I'm a cautious fellow, you know that! What's that line from 'Romeo and Juliet,' Rob? The one about gold?"

Robin thought for a second before a wicked grin lit his handsome features.

" 'Saint-seducing gold?' "

"Aye, that's it. Saint-seducing gold. I must go shopping for a saint."

"I wish I could watch," the Earl murmured. "I love to see you with your fingers in the fire. What exactly have you in mind?"

CHAPTER 31

While Hetty lingered over a tray of Mrs. Splinter's blackberry muffins, Nick studied her closely. Yes, in spite of Horatio and Rob's reservations, he was convinced Henrietta Bracegirdle was the best person available to assist him in finding Sir Edward's enemies. She had an original way of thinking, for one thing. She might misconstrue a look or a word, sometimes; she might be shockingly self-absorbed even. But she had a veritable gift for eliciting information, even if she'd no least notion of its implications.
She moved freely in Society ­ save for the Ravenscar household it seemed. She was committed to this particular cause, as much for her love of intrigue as for the fonder feelings she had once borne for Pellew. And last of all, she was possessed of an absolute fearlessness, born of a fine mixture of complete ignorance of real danger and an indomitable self-assurance. Nick reckoned he was the only person, outside of Lord Edrington himself, who knew that Hetty had once beaten that fine soldier so severely ­ with a parasol, no less! ­ that his lordship had been forced to keep his mauled face indoors and out of sight for more than a fortnight. Not even Hetty knew what she'd done: She thought she had narrowly escaped the clutches of a murderous footpad. Bit by bit Nick had pieced the story together, with the resulting hilarity barely kept in restraint until he was out of her company. He ruefully acknowledged the little demon inside him which urged him to tweak the altogether too high-in-the-instep Edrington on those rare occasions they met by talking of the inadvertently dangerous aspect of ladies' parasols.

He cleared his throat. "Do you have the letter from Lieutenant Hornblower?"

She nodded, her mouth too full to speak, and reached for her reticule. She handed over the sealed letter, swallowed and said, "The messenger said the Lieutenant would be leaving at two o' the clock, in case you need to send another message."

"No, I don't think so." Nick shook his head as he broke the seal on the letter. "I just wish I could figure out what it is about Hornblower going all the way to Falmouth that troubles me so. It might make sense to take a prize ship into Falmouth, depending on where they captured her. But does it make sense to drag him all the way up to London and send him back to Falmouth again? Won't he be rejoining Indefatigable? If not, surely he would have said so. Or would he? That's a mighty close-mouthed young man." Shaking off his speculations, he delved into Hornblower's note.

"He gives me no names I haven't already considered. But most interesting is this bit about Phibbs and Mahoney. They were both transferred to the Inde at Ushant, and at the very same time Pellew received orders to sail for the coast of Brittany to take me on as a passenger. My orders to protect Pellew came aboard the Inde at Ushant. Ushant is also where I discovered the cipher."

"All roads lead to Ushant," Hetty murmured.

"So they do," he said slowly, his lips tightening into a thin line. "I really do think we shall have to add one Silas Chilton to our list of possibles, m'dear."

"And who is he?" She thrust another muffin into her mouth.

"Let us say he is a man who has strong pull with the Port Admiral at Ushant. Sufficient that he would find it a not-insurmountable task to place two chosen men onto a particular ship. He is a man who has some experience with ciphers. And he is a man who would not stick at the murder of a fellow conspirator."

Hetty nodded wisely. "He's our man then. Must we go to Ushant to find him?"

Nick smiled cagily. "I rather prefer it when the mountain comes to Mahomet. We must see if we cannot drag the spider from his web. Anyway, we have other avenues of pursuit right here. Chilton may be the middleman, but he is not the ringleader. According to the cipher, that person is in London."

She gazed at him sternly. "Do stop mixing your metaphors, Nicholas. It is a very bad habit and it will creep into your poetry if you persist in it."

He flicked one dark eyebrow at this mention of poetry, but for once did not contradict her. A smile of singular sweetness lingered on his lips.

"As you wish, my dear Mrs. Bracegirdle."
CHAPTER 32

Splinter knocked at the library door and at the briskly spoken "Enter!" opened the door and peered around the corner. He'd been more than a little astonished when, after Mrs. Bracegirdle had departed (which was not until she had depleted every baked good Mrs. Splinter had made in the previous two days), Master Nick had asked Splinter to let Charley into the library. In Splinter's opinion, a delighted Charley was enough to suffocate the Master in his current state of debilitation, but he'd insisted and so the dog had been held tightly leashed by Splinter until Nick thought the animal was calm enough that Splinter might leave them alone together.

Now, nearly two hours later, it was with some trepidity he peeped into the book-lined room, and was astonished for the second time that day.

Master Nick was sitting perfectly still in his usual chair, where he could monitor both the entrance to this room as well as enjoy an expansive view of the small garden at the back of the house. Charley was sitting on his haunches staring up at Nick with this strange new rapt adoration of his master. A small movement of Nick's left hand and Charley suddenly barked viciously and turned to place himself squarely between Nick and Splinter. Recognizing Splinter, the dog suddenly appeared confused and turned back to Nick again. Once again Nick's hand moved, and Charley gave a soft whine, shifting on his massive front paws.

"Heaven help me!" Nick exclaimed. "I know he's a friend, but you must do as I tell you. Now, guard, dammit!" Again his hand moved, and this time the animal obeyed immediately, facing Splinter and growling low in his throat.

"Come towards me slowly, Splinter," Nick ordered.

Moving cautiously, without taking his eyes off the dog that had once trusted him and only him, Splinter took two very small steps in Nick's direction. On the second step, Charley's hackles rose and the growl deepened, his nose flipped up to expose sharp, white canines. Splinter halted in his tracks.

"Just one more step, Splinter. Trust me," Nick added as an afterthought.

Splinter took a deep breath and slowly eased one foot forward. Charley gave full voice to a ringing series of barks, and reared back, gathering himself to leap.

"Stay," Nick said calmly.

Charley immediately relaxed, turning back again to Nick, trying to lick one hand and circling the chair to get to the other hand when he failed.

"I said 'stay.'" Nick reprimanded him. "That doesn't mean you leave off guarding and go into ecstasies of self-congratulation because you've finally mastered a couple of commands."

Appearing to understand English, the dog hung his head abashedly, then collapsed into a heap at Nick's feet, the giant pink tongue giving a surreptitious swipe to Nick's boot.

"Toadeater!" Nick said softly, and Charley gave another soft whine. Relenting, Nick leaned down and scratching the beast behind one ear, said curiously to Splinter, "I've never known a dog to tolerate me before, let alone obey me. Are they all so -- so simple-minded?"

"Aye, sir. For the most part they just want to be fed reg'lar and petted now and again, and they'll behave themselves. Less'n there be another dog nearby. If it's a boy dog he'll want to chase it out of his territory. If it's a girl dog -- well, you know the laws of nature, sir."

Nick laughed. "All too well. Cats and rats -- horses, even -- they're much more complex than dogs. Is that my walking-stick?"

"Aye, sir. The carriage 'as just arrived. Are you sure you don't want me t'go wi' you?" Splinter was anxious about Nick's first excursion from the house since his illness.

"No, I want you to tell me what goes on with the watchers when I leave." As he rose from his chair, Charley also began to lumber to his feet until a sharp signal from Nick rendered him limp again. "Who goes, who stays, how they signal each other, and so on. I'll only be a couple of hours. If they should come to question you and Mrs. Splinter while I am out, tell them the truth about where I've gone. No doubt they will compare notes later to see whether some game is being played. For now, we show them consistency. Lull them a little. I want them to learn to trust what they see here. I shall have to earn that trust before I can use it."

Accepting the highly polished cane of ebony, so simply and smoothly designed that both head and shaft appeared carved from a single piece of wood, Nick took Splinter's arm as far as the front door where the servant took down a plain, black, somewhat worn chapeau. Clapping the hat on his head and taking up a pair of gloves from the small table beside the door, Nick gave the older man a smile of encouragement.

"I expect we shall be seeing a good deal of Mrs. Bracegirdle in the coming days, old man. Best warn the missus. Hire a daily maid to give her a hand with the housework if you like. I don't think your wife will be getting out of the kitchen much for a while. Oh, and if the watchers try to bring in a maid of their own, that's fine. Feel free to work her ruthlessly until she quits in disgust."

"As if I'd let such a Person into your house, Master Nick!" sniffed Splinter. "We shall do, the missus and I. Long as Mrs. Splinter knows to expect her, she'll be ready for Mrs. Bracegirdle."

Nick nodded, smiling again as Splinter opened the door and bowed him out. Leaning heavily on the black cane, he moved slowly down the front steps toward the waiting hackney. He had barely reached the sidewalk when a luxuriously maned calico cat leaped at him from where she was sunning herself on the steps of the Tate house. Landing lightly at his feet, she nonetheless startled him into nearly losing his balance. Gripping the cane more tightly, he glared at the treacherous feline now purring and wrapping herself anxiously around one ankle.

"You have three seconds to get back to your own home or I'll call for Charley," he threatened menacingly. "One --."

The cat stiffened, and stretching first one back leg, then the other, stalked haughtily away without a glance backward.

"Oh, dear, is Cleopatra bothering you again, Mr. Collins?" A sweetly-pitched feminine voice spoke to him from the Tate door.

"Good day, Miss Tate," he acknowledged, tipping his hat to her briefly. "Not at all."

"She has been anxious about you," the voice moved closer and Nick was obliged to look Miss Amanda Tate in the face. One black brow raised sardonically as his gaze quickly took in both her figure and features. A petite young woman, of fair hair and a flower-like countenance, she might have been the model for English womanhood. "Indeed, we all have been wondering how you go on," she continued. "Your servants do not say much, but they have obviously been worried about your health."

"I am fine now, Miss Tate, fully recovered, as you see." Nick deliberately kept his manner as distant as it was polite. Not only had Robin stated his clear intention with regard to Miss Tate, but it could do her and her family no good for the watchers to decide there was a closeness between the two households. "I beg you will excuse me, I have a somewhat urgent errand --."

"You always have an 'urgent errand,' Mr. Collins!" The little flower-face turned stormy. "Is it too much to ask that you might accept an invitation to tea with your neighbours on occasion? Is it altogether disallowed for your neighbours to express concern when you fall ill? It is a very good thing, let me tell you, sir, that animals appear to like you without reservation, for indeed you make it most difficult for people to do so!" Turning sharply about on one slippered foot, and with the straightest back and the most attractive ankles Nick had ever seen, Miss Tate marched herself directly back into her house, slamming the door expressively behind her.

Cleopatra twitched her tail at him saucily. Nick grinned foolishly at the cat.

"So the little rose has thorns," he murmured.

He could have sworn Cleopatra winked at him.

CHAPTER 33

Nick climbed down carefully from the hackney, realizing as he paid the driver that his muscles were sadly out of tone. Well, that was easily remedied. Besides returning to the exercise regimen he had followed before the fever he would take some walks. Some very long walks. It would give those two chaps following him some much-needed activity as well, he mused. Before the carriage had got halfway to his destination, Nick had picked out both men. What amused him enormously was that one of the men was entirely unaware of the other.

So he had two sets of watchers, one of which was certainly on assignment from Whitehall. The other? He rubbed his palm over the smooth head of the cane as he pondered the possibilities. The vertical crease had formed between his brows long before he pulled open the massive wooden doors leading into St. Margaret's Church. He removed his hat and made his way slowly past the entryway into the chapel.

Good. He had the place virtually to himself. Two old women knelt together in one of the back pews, but otherwise the church seemed empty. His minders would stand out like a stain on silk. Strolling casually toward the front of the church, he slid into the third pew from the front. The hat was placed just within reach of his right hand, while the cane was between his knees, both hands gripping the polished wood. His curly head bowed over it and he appeared the picture of a man deep in prayer. After only a few minutes, a scrabbling noise and heavy footsteps at the rear of the chapel assured him that at least one of his minders had followed him in.

With what he wryly considered the patience of a saint, he continued his prayerful attitude. Long minutes passed and Nick began a logical compartmentalization of his mind, ordering his thoughts and untangling suspicions.

The watcher he set aside into a very small section. His only concern there was to give the poor fellow no cause for alarm. Another section, also small, was given over to Falmouth. He simply could not discern what worried him so much about the port town. One compartment was reserved for this day's work, and would be needed soon, but for now a large portion of his conscious was taken up by the troubling words Robin had spoken this morning.

Could Robin know? Doubtful. He'd have said something about it by now. Anyway, knowing how much Nick had admired and felt indebted to the Old Gentleman, Robin would never have said those things about the Ravenscars if he'd known. But to find after all this time that he himself had been personally betrayed by the Old Gent, had been used by him as a tool of hatred -- this was another shock he was having difficulty absorbing, one of many blows he'd been battered by these last weeks.

A bitter smile twisted his lips. Was't possible the old man had been so venal, so coldly callous, as to sculpt Nick into a brilliant killer solely to revenge himself on the Ravenscar family?

Yes.

It was all too possible. The way the Old Gent had selected Nick, had sought him out and recruited him. He swallowed a laugh. He'd enough ego once to think there was something special the old Earl had seen in him. So special the Earl had lavished education and training and, yes, personal attention as well, upon him. He'd thought he was closer to the old man than even his grandson, Robin. Now it appeared they had neither of them known the eighth Earl St. James. That man was one who hated so deeply he would strike at the family he hated through its weakest and most vulnerable and most ambitious member. Also its most obscure. Even if the Ravenscars never knew it, the old man knew: Knew he'd taken one of their own and turned him into a talented killer. Not for the good of England, not for the glory of His Majesty, not for any reasons of war. Only for hatred. He laid his forehead against the hands clasped on top of the cane as he wrestled with the possible outcomes the Old Gentleman had foreseen, had planned for.

The Earl had forever a chess game going in his head, one in which he moved pawns carefully and knights valiantly. He'd encouraged Nick to think of himself as one of those knights; now he knew he was one of the pawns.

Soft footsteps whispered along the stone floor; low murmurs came from the old women at the back. The footsteps whispered again, drawing closer. A strong hand gripped his shoulder and Nick's head rose, his eyes lifting to meet the brown eyes of the gentle giant dressed in clergyman's attire.

"Welcome to St. Margaret's, my son." The voice was low-pitched and soothing. "I've been watching you. You have been here for some time now. Would you care to talk about whatever is troubling you?"

"Thank you, Mr. -- ?"

"Becket. Vicar Becket." Not a hint of humor was in the vicar's face, and Nick repressed the grin the name had called forth, instead offering his hand to the clergyman who shook it gravely, swallowing the smaller man's hand in his fist.

"There is something you could do for me, Vicar," Nick asked, "if it is not an inconvenience for you."

"Yes, my son?"

"Will you hear my confession, sir? Now?"

 

CHAPTER 34

"Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It has been -- let me think...about ten years since my last confession."

"Cut line, Nick!" came the low growl through the screen dividing the confessional. "You've never been to confession in your life, and I haven't the time or patience to listen to the litany of sins you must have committed by this time in your life."

"Good to see you again as well, Shanty. When I heard you were the new shepherd of the little flock of St. Margaret's, I could scarce contain my joy for you. You've come a long way from The Mint, lad."

"We both have," the voice admitted grudgingly, "but I could wish your journey had run more parallel to mine. With your brains we could both be bishops by now."

"I fear I am not so smart as I once thought," Nick said ruefully. "I should have parted company with the Old Gentleman the same time as you."

"Aye, no question that his lordship was full of the very devil. So what brings you to me after all this time, Nick?"

"Two things. First, I need a man who knows all the ropes in my game but isn't known at Whitehall."

"No! No, boy-o, I won't be party to those evil doings again. I could not live with myself if I'd done the things I know you must have been persuaded to by that lot of heathens in the government."

"It's nothing like that," Nick urged persuasively. "All I need is some information. I promise you, Shanty -- I swear to you I'm not out for blood on this caper. Boot's on the other foot this time: I'm trying to find a killer before he gets the job done."

"What's to stop you from doing in the killer when you find him?"

"I've no orders. In fact, I've been dismissed. Lost my employment. So -- no more killing. This is only to help a man I have a good bit of respect for, one of our frigate captains."

"Ah! A man who fights the enemy openly and honestly! Not like some, eh?"

Nick accepted the dig calmly. "That's right, Shanty. Not like me. He's an honourable man. He doesn't deserve what someone is trying to do to him."

"No man deserves murder. Haven't you learned that yet, Nick?"

"I've been learning some very hard lessons of late. That's only one of them." The vicar hardly recognized the humility in his old friend's voice.

"Ah! Well, mayhap there's hope for you yet. So you just want information, eh? Well, that kind of thing can take time, and sometimes it can be expensive to pry it loose."

Nick took the hint. "I'd not expect you to be out of pocket on account of me. Naturally I'll give you something for expenses. Say, 50 pounds?"

"Likely that would cover the cost," the vicar agreed. "Still and all, you might have noticed some of the pews here are in disrepair. And by next year we'll be needing a new roof to the church. Not to mention --."

"A gift to the church, Shanty? Will 500 pounds be sufficient for my portion?" Nick asked wryly.

"You always were a generous lad! That'll be more than sufficient. Time some of those ill-gotten gains of yours were turned to God's purpose anyway." The vicar rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Now what do you want to know?"

Nick smiled to himself. Saint-seducing gold, he thought.

"I want to know who the cipherers are in the Duke of Ravenscar's pay. I want to know if any of them have connections to the Admiralty. And I want to know if any of them have a grudge against Sir Edward Pellew."

"Pellew, is it!" Shanty wheezed in astonishment. "Man's a great hero. I'll find out as much as I can. When will we meet again?"

"I'll come at this time everyday. I'll wait in the third pew for three-quarters of an hour. If you don't show I'll know you have nothing for me. If I'm in the second row, that's the signal that it won't be safe to talk here. I'll have someone contact you with other arrangements in that case."

Shanty agreed. "What if I have the information and you don't show?"

Nick thought over that unpleasant prospect for several long moments. "Then tell everything you know to the Duke of Ravenscar."

"Well, I know very little right now, Nick!"

"You're going to know more than you'd like," came the soft retort.

"How so?"

"That's the second thing I want from you. I really do want you to hear my confession."
After a long shocked silence a deep sigh of relief came to Nick through the screen.

"Saints be praised! You'll be taking a year of my life in the telling but let's start with...oh, something relatively small. Let's start with the lie you told upon entering this confessional!"

CHAPTER 35

Lady Eversleigh's ball was already being lauded as a "dreadful squeeze" and none of the four hundred people crammed into the ballroom, anterooms, card room, or the supper room felt the full meaning of that phrase quite so keenly as Henrietta Bracegirdle, who had spent the better part of an hour muscling her sweaty bulk through the pressing throng in search of sustenance. Perching her massive frame on a chair so fragile and spindly it might have been designed for some weightless wraith, she carefully balanced her plate on the silken expanse of her lap while easing off satin dancing slippers that had begun to feel inches too small. If she had not been her usual farsighted self and thought to pack her reticule with a couple of pounds of assorted sweetmeats to see her through the ordeal, she doubted she would have had the necessary strength to proceed thus far.

Eyeing the mounds of food heaped on the exquisite porcelain plate, she frowned. Did those lobster patties look just a trifle green? And the jellied eels were definitely watery. Perhaps the chicken? Oh, dear heaven! Could that possibly be a pinfeather? Hetty shuddered, feeling an unusual waning of her normally robust appetite. Wasn't it just like that Eversleigh creature to lavish all her funds upon the glorious flowers and wailing orchestra, and ignore the single most important element of any social affair, namely the food? Now that she thought on it, she ought to have remembered the squalid offerings her hostess had fobbed off on her guests at last year's gathering. At least this time around there was champagne to be had. Hetty grimaced as she tossed off a glass. Flat, sour stuff it was, to be sure.

Hetty sniffed disdainfully as she mentally composed a letter about the sad state of Society to her husband, Basil. Not that he would care overmuch, but he liked to know that she was getting out and enjoying herself occasionally. He was probably enjoying a better supper this night than she was. Even a weevily biscuit sounded more appetizing than a chicken still in its overcoat. Or were those maggots that got into sea biscuit? She never could remember. Still, she ought to send Basil something nice to eat, a change of pace from the usual ship's fare. Perhaps some dried fruits and some of those lovely jellies and jams Fortnum's had just got in. And a new backgammon board also. In his last letter he'd complained that the one he had was entirely worn out from constant usage. She sniffed again. More likely that cantankerous Bowles fellow had broken it out of spite, for he never could best her Basil at the game, try as he might.

Hetty's absorption was abruptly destroyed by the appearance of the one man she had not expected to encounter at any respectable gathering of the ton: Ninian Ormsby! What was that trouser-snake ­ no, wait. Basil had told her she must not use that term, as it was highly indelicate, not to say downright vulgar ­ but what was that reptile doing here? He was up to no good, that much was certain.

Her bright beady gaze was fixed on the man with the poorest posture in London. Of medium height, thinning brown hair, and nondescript features, his most notable attribute was that he looked like a walking question mark. His arms were uncommonly long, hanging nearly to his knees and giving every indication that he had just been released from the rack. He'd once had the unmitigated gall to try to make up to her, Henrietta Bracegirdle, a married woman! Well, she had soon sent him to the rightabout! Or at least she had done so once Basil had written to her of how often English officers' wives were spied upon by enemy agents, seeking to gain any tidbit of information, no matter how small. A wink was as good as a nod, and she'd known on the instant that that Ormsby creature was The Enemy, trying not only to obtain information but also to worm his way into English society's highest echelons through her. She'd given him his conge on the instant and with no regrets.

But what was the weasel doing here? How had he gained admittance? Well, she shrugged, that could not have been difficult after all. Even the notorious Harriet Wilson, queen of the demi monde, was in attendance as well. The Eversleighs must have been forced to send invitations to the crossing sweepers as well, Hetty thought acidly, as they strove to create exactly this kind of fashionable crush, regardless of however Unfashionable the person one might be forced to rub elbows ­ or other anatomical portions ­ with.

Now just who was the gentleman Ormsby had buttonholed? He was a tall man, older than Basil, with at least fifty years in his dish. Dish She glanced at the plate in her lap, then rolled her eyes in disgust as she caught sight of the pinfeather again. Looking back again at the man Ormsby was clinging to ­ yes, he seemed to have an absolute grip of iron on the poor fellow's arm ­ she studied him more closely. A nervous man, his narrow brown eyes twitched as he looked all about him with a fearful expression, almost as if he were afraid of being seen. He was soberly dressed: Neat but not ostentatious; fashionable, but not of the first stare. He was not wealthy then. Hetty was certain she had met the man before. Well, not met him in the sense of having been introduced, but she distinctly recalled dueling with him over a dish of veal ragout at ­ at ­ oh, drat! It had proved a perfectly wonderful ragout (naturally she had emerged the victor from that engagement), why ever could she not remember who her hostess had been? She sighed. If she had continued to keep a diary after her marriage, as had been her habit before her nuptials, she would not now be fretting over this sudden lapse in memory. Oh, well, no doubt it would come to her.

Well, good heavens! Ormsby was practically dragging the man through the French doors and out onto the terrace. He must be one of Ormsby's accomplices, no doubt here tonight in an effort to burrow his insidious way into the good graces of some unsuspecting officer's wife. The government really ought to put a halt to these enemy agents once and for all, Hetty fumed. If patriotic Englishwomen were not safe within the confines of a haut ton party ­ yes, haut ton, regardless of that Eversleigh creature's miserable offerings that were not even worthy of a coal heaver's dinner! ­ and the authorities would not deal with the miscreants, then Englishwomen would simply have to take matters into their own hands.

And upon this silent declaration, Hetty forced her swollen feet back into her satin slippers, struggled to her feet, and after looking around for a place to leave her plate and finally depositing it along with its contents in a potted rubber plant, strolled as inconspicuously as a woman of her robust persona might manage in the direction of the terrace.

The warm August evening felt cool on her perspiration-dampened skin after the overheated confines of the house. Taking in the expanse of the Eversleigh gardens, accessible from a curving flight of steps at either end of the terrace, her bright, beady eyes caught a glimpse of the two men rounding a reflecting pool and entering a gazebo at the far end of the grounds.

Trundling down the steps as fast as she dared with only the light spilling out from the house to guide her way and her silken skirts seeming to tug at her ankles with every move, she gave a furtive glance around to see whether she was observed. Her sharp eyes picked out young James Caswell disappearing down into the shrubbery to the accompaniment of the unmistakably hoarse laughter of Mrs. Durberry. Hetty shrugged. She supposed it was no business of hers, but Caswell's friends really ought to warn him off that bloodsucking harpy. Not only was she at least twice the lad's age but she'd clean his pockets and wreck his manhood in no time at all. Mr. Durberry was her third, no, her fourth husband, Hetty recalled, and the three gentleman preceding him had all died penniless, broken men, mere shadows of masculinity, thanks to Jane Durberry's selfish and malicious ways. And her children! They were all monsters made in their mother's image.

And wasn't that Miss Conway crawling under the lilac? Hetty wondered who the little miss, currently the reigning Toast of London, had an assignation with. Ah, judging by the size of that boot lolling out from the bush, it could only be Tristan Ravenscar, the Duke's younger brother and an even bigger rapscallion than His Grace. Hmph! A well-enough match, she reckoned, if the Conway chit could land him, but Hetty was skeptical of the notion that the path to that rake's heart and hand went through the lilacs. Miss Conway would most likely be shipped off to the country again by harvest time, unless her Mama caught wind of such doings and carted her away even sooner. But God help the wench if she tried to entrap that young man. Ravenscar would show no mercy, as Hetty had long ago discovered to her own discomfiture.

By the time she reached the far end of the reflecting pool, she found herself huffing and puffing like Trevithick's locomotive. Pausing to catch her breath, she then moved on more slowly toward the gazebo, approaching it from the side covered by greenery. Cautiously moving aside the vines creeping up the side of the wooden structure, she put her face close to the latticework beneath and peered into the interior. It was too dark. She could see nothing. No, wait! That bit of white must be a cravat. But why weren't they talking? Suddenly a small flash of fire briefly lit the interior and the smell of sulphur carried to where Hetty stood. She wrinkled her nose. A lucifer! How foolish she was! Creeping out here like some sort of Gothic heroine and all these men were doing was smoking tobacco! A filthy habit, to be sure, but not illegal. Not even suspicious. Chagrined, she turned to creep away again.

"All right, Ormsby, you've dragged me out here in full view of half of London," came the deep voice, edgy and angry. "You're in a positive panic because Nick Collins is back in circulation and watching over the Bracegirdle woman again. What do you come to me for? What do you think I can do for you? All you've done is link us publicly, you fool! Why couldn't you send a message the usual way?"

"Because I had a message from Chilton today. He's on his way to London. He says there is reason to believe the cipher has been broken, that his agent's codebook was stolen and the agent murdered. The usual messages are no longer safe!" Ormsby's voice was shaking with fear. "If Collins ­ if Collins has --."

"Stop shaking, man! So much more reason for not accosting me in public if even our ciphers are unsafe. Let me think what is to be done." The unknown gentleman puffed on his cigarillo nervously in a poor semblance of calm reflection, but even from Hetty's poor observation post she could see the glowing tip quivering in the darkness.

Ormsby was clearly panic-stricken by the name of Collins. That would please Nick enormously, Hetty mused, as he liked to think himself a dangerous tiger when in reality he was the sweetest puppy. Only a spineless jellyfish like Ninian Ormsby would be afraid of Nick Collins, she scoffed.

"Well? Well?" Ormsby stamped his foot with impatient petulance.

The glowing tip of the cigarillo fell to the floor and was crushed out.

"I shall have to get approval first of course, but I have an idea how to handle Collins," the deep voice now seemed calm and reassuring. "Yes, indeed, I have an idea that just might remove that particular obstacle altogether."

Hetty's eyes widened at the sinister tone then opened wider still as her breath was suddenly cut off. There was something around her neck, a rope, strangling her! Her pudgy fingers tore at her throat as she struggled back against her unseen attacker. For a moment she thought she had fought him off, then she felt a knee press into her spine and the noose about her neck tighten. Aghast, choking, she renewed her struggles and with a strength born of fear she slammed herself back against the gazebo, smashing her assailant between the wooden frame and her own bulk. Still writhing as she fought to pull air into her lungs, she again slammed backward but still the rope held tight, twisting into her flesh. Once more she made an attempt to crush the killer, but suddenly the rope fell slack and a pair of hands thrust mightily against her back, and Hetty stumbled forward blindly, face first into the reflecting pool.
CHAPTER 36

The morning sun had barely crept over the horizon when the two men, so alike in appearance with their dark colouring and aristocratic features, differing greatly only in the dozen or so years which separated their ages, faced each other across the wide mahogany desk. An open bottle of brandy rested on the desk between them.

"You saw Ormsby and Simpson together yourself?" the older man demanded, running the long fingers of one hand through the already disheveled mass of black hair as he drained the snifter held in the other hand.

"No question about it." The younger man's voice was calm and self-assured, but carried the same timbre and tone as that of his counterpart.

"But you didn't see who attacked that Bracegirdle harpy?"

"I was, ah, otherwise occupied at that time."

"Blast it all! I suppose you were cavorting with that yaller-haired chit," the older man accused.

"You may suppose anything you like, Max. It is of no concern to me whatsoever. The question is, what is to be done now that we can prove Simpson is behind this plot to kill Sir Edward?"

"That's just it, my lad, we cannot prove it. No," he cut off the other man's attempt at speech. "A private meeting with Ormsby in a gazebo is proof of nothing! But at least we know for certain now that it is Simpson who is Ormsby's master in all this."

"So what is our next step?"

The older man put down his snifter and rose from his seat and began pacing around the room, his arms folded across his chest. The younger of the two, aware that this was an attitude of deep concentration, held his silence all the while.

He stopped pacing abruptly and asked, "What of Collins?"

The younger man smiled. "He knows we're watching. He may not know precisely who is watching, but he's well aware of how many. Those lackeys from Whitehall are another kettle of fish altogether. They are beyond ignorant. Collins is out and about, but moving very carefully. Developing his patterns of behaviour, trying to beguile us into relaxing. And managing to torment his, ah, observers more than one might imagine. But after what happened to Mrs. Bracegirdle tonight ­ last night, I should say ­ I think he'll make his move very soon. Possibly today. I would, if I were in his place."

"Where do you think he would start?"

"With Ormsby, no question about it. He'll try to get Simpson's name out of Ormsby. Once he knows Jack Simpson's uncle is involved, I wouldn't give you two pins for the man's life."

"I think so, too. Take care of it then. You get to Ormsby first. I don't care what you have to do, I don't want Collins talking to him." The voice was laden with warning. "And when you've done that, I want you watching Collins."

"You cannot be serious! Did I tell you what he did yesterday when Chapman was on watch? He walked ­ walked, mind you, all the way to Hyde Park, went 'round the park a couple of times, walked to a livery and hired the last hack they had and THEN had the bleeding nerve to walk that damned nag around the park another half dozen times! I had to have Chambers take Chapman's watch today. The poor man can hardly stand, his feet are so blistered!"

The other man shrugged. "You said yourself Collins will make his move very soon. I want you there when he does."

"Are you ever going to call him Nick?" The younger man was scorched by the fiery look he received in response to the seemingly casual question. "Never mind then." He tossed off the last of his brandy and rose to depart. "What about Caswell?" he asked, reaching for his gloves.

"What about him?"

"If Collins knows about him"

"How can he?" The older man withdrew a key from his pocket and unlocked a liquor cabinet meticulously inlaid with ivory. "He's still got that Cockney vicar looking in the wrong direction. Never mind about Caswell. Just deal with Ormsby."

"God, this is a bloody business we're in," declared the younger man.

"Damn it all to hell!" The man at the liquor cabinet loosed several vehement oaths before crossing the room in three long strides and yelling for his butler, " Jarvis! Jarvis! Damn you, man! Have you been in the brandy again? You're fired, d'ye hear me? Fired!"

-----------------------------

The morning sun had been above the horizon for nearly two hours by the time Nick strode through St. James Square on his way home. He was pleased with himself for more reasons than one. These past two weeks had seen an enormous improvement in not only his health but his spirits as well. With proper diet and a rigorous exercise regimen his strength was nearly fully recovered. His confession to Shanty had seemed to exorcise any number of demons, and while Nick thought he would always have a sense of guilt for his misdeeds his friend had placed him firmly onto the path of self-forgiveness. Once this matter of Pellew's assassin was settled, he really would have to give serious thought to what he would do with the remainder of his life.

He stopped briefly at a corner to allow a wagon to pass, and glanced around casually. Ah, yes. Here came his minders, trudging along in his wake. They were another source of satisfaction and he would have to carefully omit any reference to them in his next confession. He derived a good deal of pleasure from watching those two chaps hobble about on blistered heels, enough that Shanty would take him to task over it. He grinned to himself. Perhaps if the day proved as hot as its early morning promise he might walk over to St. Margaret's this afternoon instead of driving. He might even have a small bet with Splinter on which man would get sunstroke, or at the very least which one would remove his coat first.

And Nick's own coat was yet another source of satisfaction. He'd taken Robin's advice and visited his tailor. The result was this perfectly fitting coat of blue superfine, of a subdued hue although not nearly so somber as his usual black, under which a dove grey double-breasted waistcoat buttoned high up underneath a cravat tied in an intricate Waterfall, the manipulation of which had been profusely admired by the less nimble-fingered Splinter. He had also a new hat, high crowned and not so much to his liking as his old one, but he had thought of several possibilities for its use that had delighted Splinter, who had the task of adapting the hat to fit Nick's requirements.

Resuming his stride along the square, he hummed to himself as he idly whirled his ebony cane in elaborate patterns. The reflexes were rebounding nicely, he mused, as his slim fingers moved quickly up and down the length of the stick. It was a lovely bit of wood, a weapon really, and one painstakingly carved and polished for him by the always-obliging Splinter. It was heavy enough to be used in the manner of a quarterstaff or cudgel in the event he was accosted suddenly. Splinter had done a masterful job of making it appear that the stick was a single piece of wood when in reality the head was removable, revealing a long, narrow hollow running almost the length of the cane. Even under a close examination one would be hard-pressed to find the joint. Nick had carried any number of items in that hollow at one time or another: Maps, orders, ciphers, diamonds, gold, opium, powder and fuse. Well, those days were gone, he supposed, and though he'd not miss the bloodshed, he knew the time would soon arrive when he would find himself longing for the excitement and challenge of outwitting the enemy. Deciding on a new occupation was going to take careful thought.

Rounding the corner into Skeffington Street he was not surprised to find Robin's carriage stationed before the Tate house even at this early hour. His lordship had been virtually haunting the place since Nick had allowed Robin to plague him into an introduction to the Tates. If both men had been cynically amused by Mrs. Tate's breathily elaborate welcome to Robin while all but ignoring Nick, both were just as equally impressed by the calm good manners and relaxed nature of Mr. Tate. Miss Amanda, the entire object of this social enactment, had been at first a little awestruck by the presence of an earl, but Robin's natural charm had set everyone very much at their ease. By the end of the week, Robin's attentions to the lovely Miss Tate were apparent to one and all, and if she had seemed a little resistant at first, tossing one or two confused looks in Nick's direction, well, what woman could long hold out against such charm, such handsome masculinity, such wealth ­ especially when it was accompanied by such an old and revered title, and most especially when the full weight of these collective virtues was bent upon a true innocent by an experienced rake?

Far from finding his own feelings in any way bruised, Nick was surprised to find himself more and more delighted to observe Robin so deep in the throes of obvious adoration; and more and more pleased that the Little Flower Face gave every appearance of at last beginning to return that affection. In fact, Nick would not be at all taken aback to learn the object of this morning's visit was for Robin to declare his intentions to Mr. Tate. He wondered what that gentleman would think of Robin's unseemly haste to wed his daughter.

Nick had gained his own doorstep and Splinter had just opened the door to admit him when a carriage bowled up behind him and he heard Hetty calling his name.

"Nick! Oh, Nick! You are not leaving are you? I must talk to you! It is of the most urgent. Had that wretched maid not allowed me to oversleep and if I were not so entirely battered and bruised, I should have been here eons ago!" Hetty was breathless as Nick and Splinter assisted her to alight from the coach.

"Not at all," he responded with calm courtesy. "I am always at your service, my dear. Shall I send your driver away or do you want him to wait?"

Hetty looked around, confused and flustered. "I hardly know," she exclaimed. "Nick, I have so much to tell you!"

Indeed, he could see that she was positively agog with news: Her hat was sadly askew, the feathers bent as if she had sat on them, the silk scarf knotted about her throat was as long as any sash, and the actual sash was itself so twisted that, along with carrying her gloves rather than wearing them, she appeared to Nick as if she had barely taken the time to put on clothes before trundling herself into her coach and setting out. Calmly he ordered the driver to return in an hour, and turned Hetty towards the house.

"Shall we go in, my dear?" he urged. "I expect Robin will be along shortly, but we can have a comfortable coze until then."

"Oh! Oh, yes! Splinter, you dear man, do you think your wife will have made any of those Battenburg sponge cakes?" Already she was distracted from her own sense of urgency by the prospect of food. Nick and Splinter exchanged a bland look over Hetty's head as she surged ahead of them in quest of edibles.

CHAPTER 37

Nick glanced up as the door to the library opened again and a patently unhappy Robin Halliwell entered. Rising to greet him, he slung a companionable arm around his friend's shoulders and murmured sympathetically, "Miss Tate refused you, I take it?"

Robin scowled. "Hardly!"

"Then what has you so Friday-faced?"

"Her father says it's too soon. Says he doesn't believe she knows her own heart yet. Says that less than a month ago she had quite the tendre for you." Robin glared accusatorily at his friend.

"NOT a tendre," Nick asserted calmly. "More like a kindly curiosity."

"Regardless, I may not speak to her about marriage for six months. Six months! I shall go insane!"

"And what happens in six months?" Nick inquired with a lift of one black eyebrow.

"If her affections are steady, I may address her at that time. Until then, however, my future father-in-law has had the gall to limit me to no more than two visits per week. Nor may I have more than one dance with Amanda at any of the parties we both attend. What a miserable fellow he must be to choose to torment me so!"

A laugh escaped Nick and he murmured a quote from Shakespeare at Robin, from whom he had learned it: "Who would be a father?"

Robin snorted in disgust and shrugging off Nick's arm, helped himself to a glass of Madeira from a bottle on the sideboard. Nick's expression sobered. "If you would hear something truly grim, come and listen to what happened to poor Hetty last night." He waved Robin to a seat, before resuming his own place on the settle next to her.

"My dear," he addressed her, "here is St. James come to help us through this tangle. The very fellow we need."

The emphasis on this last statement caused the Earl's dark blue eyes to widen, and a hint of a sparkle crept into them. "The game's afoot, is it then? And I have a part to play? Say on, please, Mrs. Bracegirdle."

"I was telling Nicholas that at the Eversleighs' ball last night I saw Ninian Ormsby collar another man --."

"I beg pardon, who is Ninian Wormsby?" Robin asked.

"Ormsby," Nick corrected. "You've seen him about. The Punctuation Man."

Robin nodded his comprehension. "Arms so long his knuckles drag the ground? Ah, yes, I know whom you mean. Do go on, Mrs. ­ won't you please allow me to call you Hetty, as Nick does?"

Robin was amused by her regal nod of condescension before she continued the saga.

"That Ormsby Creature fairly dragged this other gentleman out into the garden. Well! As I know Ormsby is a spy for the French, I followed them outside so that I might hear their conversation if possible and have them arrested."

Nick could see that Robin wanted to ask how she knew Ormsby was a spy, but he gave a small shake of his head to discourage the question. Robin merely nodded knowingly.

"And is that what happened? You had Ormsby arrested?"

She sniffed disdainfully. "If I had only had the chance! There were other guests in the garden, you know: Tristan Ravenscar was beguiling the Conway chit, and Mr. Caswell, I am sorry to say, was dallying in the hedges with Mrs. Durberry. Too many people, you see, so Ormsby and this other man walked out past the reflecting pool to the gazebo. I managed to trail them ­ quite inconspicuously, I assure you! I was no more noticeable than a light breeze."

Robin coughed suddenly to disguise a laugh and Nick frowned at him.

"Tell him what you heard, Hetty," Nick encouraged her, his smile growing as she recounted the entire conversation verbatim and he saw the realization of it slowly dawn upon Robin

"Chilton?" Robin asked. "Are you certain that was the name?"

"I am never mistaken, Lord St. James," she declared, a clear sense of superiority on her broad features. Once I write something down I never forget it. And though I have not kept a diary since I was married, last night I went home and wrote down everything that occurred."

Nick took her hand and kissed it fondly. "You are a wonder, dear lady. And a wonder it is that you are here today to tell us of this conversation."

Robin was becoming intrigued. "There is more to this tale?"

"Oh, I declare!" Hetty rolled her eyes. "Would that there were not! For as I was listening to Ormsby whine and cringe and this other man who sounded so sinister in plotting against Nicholas, someone tried to strangle me!" With a decided sense of the dramatic, she lifted the back of one hand to her forehead and affected a fine dieaway air.

Robin was genuinely shocked for a moment, then looked at Nick in clear disbelief. Wordlessly Nick reached out and tugged away the scarf from her neck. The dark bruising was unmistakable. Robin and Nick had both seen similar marks on corpses, and realized how close she had come to being one of them.

"She never saw her attacker. She was more than a little fortunate to have escaped with her life," Nick's voice was soft and low, an indication to Robin of the rage that seethed in him.

"You knew the risks," Robin reminded him, hoping to cool his friend's temper.

"Aye, and I am no longer willing that Hetty should run them. I'll see her out of harm's way today."

"And then what? Will you deal with Ormsby?"

Nick shook his head. "Ormsby is a pawn. I doubt if he has any worthwhile information beyond the name of the man he spoke with last night."

"But Ormsby could give you that name." Robin pointed out the obvious.

"Ormsby is the trap that man would set for me," Nick was one move ahead in this deadly chess game, and his impatience flickered. "If I go near him, he is a dead man. Not that I should regret his loss, but why risk springing such a deadly trap for such small gain? Let us see if we cannot deduce who this mysterious conspirator may be. Hetty, describe this man for us, please. Leave out no detail, however small and insignificant it may seem."

Hetty did not respond immediately, but began spooning the contents of a dish of whipped syllabub into her mouth as her eyes closed in concentration. After a half dozen bites, she began: "A tall man, a good two inches above six feet. At least fifty years of age, no more that five-and-fifty. Light brown hair, a mousy colour. Narrow brown eyes. His eyes twitched."

"His eyes twitched?" Robin was dubious.

"Tics, I suppose," Nick mused. "A nervous condition, perhaps?"

"He did not want to be seen with That Ormsby Creature, that was clear enough," Hetty declared. She took a fortifying spoonful of syllabub then continued by describing the neat, plain garb worn by the man. "And his voice was very deep," she went on. "Quite bass."

"I've no notion who he may be. By his clothing, I would guess him to have a position in the government," Robin hazarded.

"Almost certainly," Nick affirmed, standing up and going to his desk. From a drawer he took several papers. "We knew there had to be someone, probably in the Admiralty, behind all of this. Here is the list of names from the Admiralty I've considered: Lord Spencer, Troubridge, Wainwright --."

Robin shook his head vehemently. "I still disagree with Spencer's name being on the list. If he wanted Sir Edward dead, he'd only to order the man on a suicidal mission. Why, he -- he --." His speech halted suddenly and an unmistakable look of comprehension followed by one of dismay swept his features.

"What?" Nick asked urgently.

"Spencer's secretary."

"Fitzpatrick? What of him?"

"Not Fitzpatrick -- did you not know he resigned almost four months ago? His health, you know. He was replaced by a Jonathan Simpson."

"Simpson?" Nick could feel the fine hairs beginning to bristle on the back of his neck. "Is he by any chance related to the late Jack Simpson, former midshipman of the Indefatigable?"

"I think it very likely."

The two men met each other's eyes calmly. Both were aware of the incident several years earlier in which Captain Pellew had meted out his personal brand of justice when Jack Simpson had attempted to murder Horatio Hornblower, resulting in Simpson's own death after a remarkably fine musket shot by Pellew.

"Revenge is a singularly compelling motive," Hetty observed, revealing her own awareness of the incident.

Nick nodded. "I think we have found one of the key figures in this plot. Caswell is another, of course," he added, as Hetty shot him an inquiring glance. "Simpson had only to send one or two letters under Spencer's seal, to place Pellew in the right port at the right time. Chilton was the hired lackey who found the would-be assassins and put them in place. Caswell developed a new cipher for their personal use. I suppose he must have been motivated by money, like Chilton."

"How you be so certain of Chilton's motives?" Robin asked. "Perhaps he bears his own grudge towards Sir Edward?"

"Anything is possible," Nick rubbed his hands together thoughtfully. "But Chilton is a cold man. Very cold. Almost without emotion. Although," he added with a humorous glint in his black eyes, "he does understand fear. Silas Chilton loves himself, his comfort, his position -- and not much else. I'll wager his involvement required considerable remuneration. He can only be coming to London for one of two reasons: Either he has not been paid as agreed, or he wants to cover his part in this villainy." Silently he continued pursuing this chain of thought, back into the recent past, tiny pieces of the puzzle coming together for the first time.

"I cannot fathom taking the risk of returning to England at all, given his position," Robin weighed in. "Surely his only fear can have been of you, but even he must know by now that you are discredited, so why risk putting himself right in the thick of this mess? Of course, that still leaves open the issue of money, but -- Nick, are you listening? Nick!" Robin was indignant.

Nick's air of abstraction was suddenly broken. "I am an idiot. A complete moron," he swore. "Why it never occurred to me before this, I do not --." He lapsed into silence again, the vertical crease between his brows which indicated deep concentration was evident.

Hetty and the Earl looked at each other in bewilderment, and she shrugged. "It is the poet in him taking over, I must suppose. It is necessary that he sink into romantic reverie upon occasion." She took a last swipe at the syllabub before relinquishing the dish.

Robin took a deep breath of astonishment at this statement, and looked at Nick again to see those black eyes piercing him.

"If," Nick proposed carefully, "anyone in the Admiralty knew of this plot to Pellew's life, what do you suppose would be the result?"

"It would be made known all the way to the top, to Spencer. At the very least, Simpson and Caswell would have been ferreted out by now and placed under arrest." Robin thought for a moment longer, and added slowly, "And God knows, Chilton would never dare show his face in London."

Nick nodded. "Yet none of that has happened. So if we agree then that the Admiralty must be entirely unaware of the plot -- who sent the order to me to protect Pellew?"

Robin was taken aback. For long moments he simply stared at Nick. Almost holding his breath, and shaking his fair head in disbelief, he murmured, "Can it be? Can he have infiltrated the Old Gentleman's network so entirely that he could direct your actions at a distance?"

"Stop all this suspense immediately!" demanded Hetty. "Who?"

"An old friend of yours, my dear." Nick sat down beside her again and clasped one pudgy hand. "The Duke of Ravenscar." While she gaped at him in surprise, he leaned forward and addressed the Earl in confidential tones. "Robin, you really ought to have another wager with Marchmont. I have not heard you quote the Bard once today!"

" 'Company, villainous company, hath been the spoil of me'," the Earl retorted, shaking his fair head in wonderment.
CHAPTER 38

Tristan Ravenscar had reason for his grim expression as he greeted Chambers. After the early morning meeting with his brother, he had gone straight to Ninian Ormsby's lodgings. Greeted there by the shocking sight of blood-splattered walls and Ormsby's disfigured corpse, he had been sickened, and for the first time since the beginning of this whole business, his feelings against his bastard half-brother had hardened. The Old Gent had trained Nick all too well, or perhaps Nick's own low breeding played a part in what he had become. How else to explain the loathsome creature who lived in the house across the street from this observation post? What kind of monster could so carve up another human being and all the while feel nothing? Or worse, feel pleasure? Tristan had collected himself sufficiently to send a note around to Max, to let him know Nick had already got to Ormsby then had headed directly for Skeffington Street. He'd very much like to go storming into the cheerful little house then and there, and arrest Nick Collins immediately, but Max played his cards deep. Best to wait for orders from him.

"Report," Tristan ordered tersely.

Chambers, a stout man of medium height, shrugged. "Like every other morning, from all accounts: Collins took us for a long ramble around town before taking pity and coming home again so's I could have a rest. The Bracegirdle woman arrived at his house almost as soon as he did. Lord St. James was at the neighbours' house at that time but went into Collins' place no more than five minutes before you came."

Tristan was puzzled. "Did not Mrs. Bracegirdle come here late last night?"

"Ferguson was on duty last night. He reported no visitors, and Collins never left the house. All quiet-like, same as always."

"What about this morning? Did he receive any messages? Could he have received any? Did you lose track of him at any time? Be honest, man!" Tristan's voice was sharp. "A murder was committed this morning. I need to know if there is any chance Collins might have done it."

"None." Chambers was positive. "No visitors until the Bracegirdle woman. And he was never out of my sight for more than a few seconds at any one time. That Collins is a right bastard," he charged with no hint of irony. "He'd get so far ahead and then wait for the both of us -- that fool from Whitehall and me -- to catch up with him."

Tristan could hardly believe it. He would have sworn Nick had outmaneuvered Max, getting to Ormsby first and killing him. If not -- it must have been Simpson then. Still, Tristan had his doubts about that: Simpson was easily capable of plotting murder but he was far too cowardly to risk getting bloodied over it. A hired killer, perhaps? Caswell, even? Caswell was finding out he was in over his head all right, but did he even know about Ormsby? They'd not seen the brilliant young cipherer make contact with any of the conspirators save Jonathan Simpson. Of course, he might still have had the knowledge and any man could be pushed too far. Or be made to look as if he had been pushed too far. Tristan writhed inwardly as he found he was still uncomfortable with Max's handling of the Montfeuille affair. Repressing the thought of what had been done to end Nick's career, he wondered: Chilton? If Chilton had arrived ­ but according to Max he was another man who liked to have someone else handle the grisly end of this business. Tristan continued to mull over the possibilities as he asked, "What route did he take? Anywhere near Shimbold Lane?"

"That's over toward Pentonville, aye? No, sir, we were never that far north and east. If he'd slipped away from me, to get that far he'd have had to be out of sight for at least half an hour, and he would still have needed a horse waiting for him."

Tristan reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a small notebook and a stub of a pencil. Swiftly he scrawled a message, tore out the paper, folded it and handed it to Chambers.

"Take this to the Duke. If he's not at Ravenscar House, find him! Look at Babington's Coffee House first, then ­ oh, hell, this is settling-up day, so he might be at Tattersall's. Or Nestleford's, that's his favorite winery. After you've given His Grace this note, come back here unless he orders otherwise. The more eyes we have on Collins, the more comfortable I shall be!"

Tristan was on pins and needles from the time Chambers left. He was afraid to take his eyes from Nick's house for even a second. Using the bring'em-close Chambers had left him, and thanks to the bow window at the front of Collins house, he could see Nick and his two visitors move into the yellow saloon. The reports indicated that Nick had few visitors apart from the Earl of St. James and Mrs. Bracegirdle. Apparently he kept his neighbours at something of a distance, although St. James was not reported to have any such qualms and was in fact furiously courting the miss next door.

Good God, was that -- ? The manservant had just entered with a greatly overburdened tea tray, even though it was hardly the hour. Ah! Mrs. Bracegirdle. Yes, now he understood some of the more cryptic comments made by poor blistery-heeled Chapman who had made do with a crust of bread and a bit of cheese while all manner of delicious dishes were consumed by that good lady.

Fascinated, Tristan watched through the spyglass as Mrs. Bracegirdle made swift and sharp inroads into a mound of cakes and confections. For long moments he watched as she devoured ­ whatever it was. Suddenly remembering that he was supposed to be watching Nick, he jerked the glass around to his half-brother just as that man raised his teacup and smiled blindingly directly at him! Tristan jerked, almost falling backward, as if he'd caught in the embarrassing act of spying, before realizing Nick could not possibly have seen him. Fitting the glass to his eye again and focusing once more, he could see the unlikely trio was engaged in an animated conversation. St. James, if one could judge by his posture and gestures, was laughingly protesting something Nick had said. Mrs. Bracegirdle clapped her hands together and appeared delighted with whatever might be the topic under discussion.

Tristan was puzzled. The woman had nearly been strangled last night ­ and he tried not to remember that it had happened right under his nose! How then that she appeared so carefree just a few hours later? And Nick. The countless stories of his absolute loyalty ­ were they false? Did he not care that the lady who was his friend had come so near to being murdered? Tristan wondered. There were even more stories of how awesomely cool under fire was Nick Collins. There was no question in Tristan's mind: Nick would make his move soon. And, and by God, for once Tristan would be there to see it.

But as the day wore on, he began to doubt himself. Chambers returned, having located the Duke of Ravenscar but the only response to his brother's message had been a long string of curses and the order to rejoin Tristan in the watch. And the adjuration to the both of'em to "stick to that bastard Collins like Stockholm tar!"

Handing Chambers back his spyglass, Tristan grinned as he pictured Max's expression and said with no little enthusiasm that he'd every intention of it.

But after Mrs. Bracegirdle's coach had come and been sent away again; after every crumb of food on the tea tray had been devoured; after fresh tea had been brought, poured and drunk; after the friends had socialized and played several hands of cards; after one and all had made a discreet visit to the privy; after a round of sherry had been downed and it began to look as if Nick's friends intended to spend the entire day in his company, Tristan finally realized he might stand in greater danger of dying of boredom than from any cut-throat shenanigans Nick could dream up. For the better part of two hours the most exciting thing to happen had been watching Collins' giant of a dog leap the railings and run off. "Great, unruly beast," opined Chambers nastily. "Hope he gets hit by a dray." When his companion stared at him hard for this remark he added, "Bloody dog bit me on the arse."

Unable to withstand such hair-raising moments, Tristan was nearly asleep on his feet when Chambers finally nudged him. "Something's 'appenin'."

Alert once again, his heart beginning to pound in anticipation, he watched as Splinter emerged from the house and hied St. James's coachman. Chambers rubbed his hands together gleefully.

"Aye," the stout man muttered, rubbing at his whiskers, "once he's rid of the lady and gent, that'll be his time to move. I'll just go around to the mews, sir, and make sure the lad watching the back of the house is awake and watching. Been waiting so long, and that devil's put us through the millgrinder. Be a real pleasure to take him up, it will!"

And so saying, he was off, leaving Tristan to observe the doings in Skeffington Street. Mrs. Bracegirdle emerged from the house first, followed by the Earl, still settling his hat on his head. What a figure the man cut! Every inch of clothing sewn by a master tailor and worn with an air of insouciance that Tristan could only envy. Like his brother, Max, he himself seemed never to appear to fashionable advantage. No matter the haberdasher, no matter the expense, and even when just minutes out from under the careful hands of their respective valets, the brothers somehow managed to appear disheveled. Not the careful disarray of the romantic poets, but more the heedless disarray of the common ruffian. Max could not care less about his appearance, but Tristan had long nursed a secret aspiration to be one of the Tulips of the Ton. He sighed as he caught a glimpse of the Earl's delicately patterned waistcoat as that gentleman assisted Mrs. Bracegirdle into the coach.

Another figure seemed to suddenly burst on the scene as a fair-haired young woman erupted from the house next door to Collins. Yes, this must be the girl St. James was wooing. Hard to tell without using the bring-em-close, but she looked pretty enough from a distance. She approached the Earl rapidly but stopped when he turned to face her. They spoke; he went to her and took her both her hands. In public, too! smirked Tristan. He IS serious about her. After a brief exchange St. James kissed her hands, then turned her about and urged her in the direction of her own door.

Suddenly Tristan cursed himself for a fool and turned his attention back to the Collins house. The door had already closed behind Splinter and there was no one to be seen now in the yellow saloon. Damn! Had Collins got out from under already? Max would flay him if he fouled this up. Ah, thank heavens! There he was! The dark-haired figure strolled back into the yellow saloon and Tristan was heaving a sigh of relief as a puffing Chambers came puffing up beside him again.

"Still there, is he?" Chambers grinned. "Aye, lad, we've got you now. Just try and slide away. I'd like the chance to mill you down, aye, that I would!"

Tristan chuckled at this vehemence. "What have you got against Collins? I thought you didn't know him?"

"No more I do, sir, but that'un's a gamester and a reg'lar demon he is about it, too. Been playin' with our minds and bodies ever since we tuk on this job. He's give us blisters, dogbites, sore heels and backs. He's made us sit on hard, splintery old pews damned near every day whilst he sits in the confessional and dreams up more tortures for us. We has to watch while that lady friend of his'n eats foods I can only dream on. One o' his walks one day, he buys an ice and hurries away with it too fast for me to buy one for m'self. Had to borrow a canteen from a chap in the 31st Foot so I wouldn't always go thirsty on those wild rambles he takes. One day he hires a little boat down t'the docks and rows out on the river. So's I hire a boat and go on out there, in case he's planning to slope off like, right? I'm out there in the middle of the bleedin' Thames and of a sudden he throws up this little sail what was in the boat and he scoots on back to shore that quick," Chambers snapped his fingers to demonstrate. "So's I start to try to turn about that block of wood I'm in and now I sees the tide's runnin' out and takin' me with it!"

Tristan was valiantly suppressing his laughter. More and more, he thought, I could learn to love this half-brother of mine.

"So you lost him that day," he said with a sober countenance.

Chambers swore furiously. "Like bloody hell. He sat there on the bank and watched me sweat and strain just to stay in place. The devil! If he'd had the decency to slope off right then, I'd have stopped working so hard and rowed for the shore with the current, even though I'd have ended a mile or two downstream. But he knew it, the rotten little gamester, so he sat and watched me, knowing I'd not bleeding well give up so long as I still had him in my sights."

"But you cannot have just kept at it until the tide changed again. You'd have collapsed from exhaustion," Tristan observed, without taking his eyes from the man in the house across the street.

"Aye." Chambers growled and spat. "He waited till I had worn my hands raw on those oars, then he sent a bumboat woman out to get me and tow me in. Never so bleedin' humiliated in all m'life. Just one chance to show him a handy bunch of fives, that's all I'm wantin'." He spat again.

"I expect it won't be much longer," Tristan said, nodding at the house. "Look what he's doing."

Chambers whipped his head around and brought up his spyglass for a better look. "Them's pistols he's loading, sir! Nice pair, too, silver-chased."

"Mantons, I expect. Collins doesn't stint on the tools of his trade. Just a few more minutes and I think you shall have your chance at him."

But Chambers was doomed to disappointment as after completing the cleaning and loading of the Mantons, the dark-haired man left the room only briefly, returning with a thick book and a bottle of what might have been claret. Once again the minutes began to drag, as Tristan and Chambers watched while their quarry became deeply engrossed in his book. For a moment their hopes lifted again, as Collins finally rose, stretched and moved out of sight, only to have them dashed again when he returned with a cushion, which he carefully plumped into place before settling himself to his book once again. The first hour passed, then the second, and except that Collins continued to turn the pages at an even pace, Tristan might have thought he was viewing a wax figure.

Chambers had begun yawning, which had in turn set Tristan off and he was just thinking that it was approaching tea time and how nice it would be to be sitting in his brother's drawing room and sharing tea with his charming, if slightly volatile, sister-in-law. When at first a figure emerged from the house adjacent to Nick's he noted it, but was not interested. Yes, it was the young miss again, but Tristan suddenly realized by the look of her that she was not running any ordinary errand. She moved furtively as if she did not want anyone to see her. Or stop her. Once clear of her own doorstep she scurried up to Nick's door and, finding the door unlatched when she tried it, she let herself in.

"What do you think that's about?" he wondered aloud.

"Forward little minx. Reckon she'd marry the lord for his money, but must fancy Collins on the sly."

Bemused, Tristan watched as the pretty young miss slowly opened the door into the yellow saloon.

"Servants must be asleep," Chambers snorted.

"Why not?" Tristan asked dryly. "We nearly were."

The man in the yellow saloon must have heard her because he looked up, and then jumped to his feet. The girl said something and he opened his arms to her. She rushed into them and they fell into a long, passionate kiss.

"Whew!" Chambers fanned his face while Tristan shook his head.

"I'd not have thought him so low, to trifle with a friend's lady." His voice held a hint of disillusionment.

"He's a bleedin' assassin!" protested Chambers.

"Yes, but I was just beginning to really ­ to really" His voice trailed away.

"To really what?" Chambers asked.

Tristan was suddenly wide-awake and standing upright as he stared hard at the couple still so deeply engaged. The girl's hands had moved up across her lover's shoulders and she wrapped her arms about his neck. For a moment, his black hair lifted, went askew, and revealed the golden gleam beneath the wig.

Tristan swallowed hard.

"My God! He's done it," he whispered. Then his voice rose to the familiar Ravenscar roar. "Now damn the bastard! Nick Collins has been gone these past two hours and more!"

CHAPTER 39

Only four streets over from Skeffington Nick ordered Robin's carriage to a stop, opened the door and gave a sharp whistle. Hearing the command from his newly beloved master, the giant dog abandoned his investigation of a wrought-iron gate, quickly marked it for later attention, and bounded for the carriage. Inside, Nick alertly fended off Charley's moist attentions and settled the animal quietly.

"How did you ever win over that great beast?" inquired Hetty with a moue of distaste. Her own experience with large dogs had left her with a healthy fear of and an equal amount of dislike for canines in general. "Was a time he would have taken off your hand did you extend it in his direction."

"Or even if it was not in his direction," Nick replied dryly, doffing his hat and tugging off the blond wig. Running a hand through his flattened curls he continued, "I have no notion what may have changed his attitude toward me. It is only since my illness that he has become quite, um, affectionate. And he's enormously helpful is preventing other ­ ah, that is to say, I'm really rather proud of him. He's becoming quite obedient, aren't you, Charley?"

Charley looked up eagerly at the sound of his name, laughingly displaying inch-long white incisors.

Hetty shuddered. "Is it far to this church?"

"No, not at all. I shall be curious to see what you think of Mr. Becket, the vicar at St. Margaret's."

A short while later it was with curious eyes of her own that Hetty assessed the giant clergyman who, as he towered over her, gave every appearance of having been quite a ruffian in his time, what with a broken nose, wild hair, and thin scar that trailed from behind one ear down into his collar. He was really not so much older than Nicholas, was he? Four or five years perhaps, no more than that. It was the expression in his eyes, an abundance of world-weariness softened by a genuine compassion for the human condition. Obviously a good and caring friend to Nicholas so what could one do but overlook that dreadful scar and unfortunate nose?

For his part, Shanty had Hetty's measure in less than a heartbeat. Putting aside all notion of offering tea to his guests, he instead pleaded forgiveness that he could not do so ­"the needs of the Church being most pressing at this time" -- while urging them into the shabbiest of tiny parlors and, much to Nick's barely suppressed hilarity, had within fifteen minutes induced Hetty to dig deeply into her oversized reticule for any spare shillings gone astray. He'd no doubt at all that any significant time in Shanty's company would see the softhearted Hetty run off her legs by quarter-day.

"What news, Shanty?" Nick broke into Shanty's ongoing pitch for moneys for the church.

The big man eyed his friend. "Not good. I've not been able to get anyone talking about Ravenscar's people. No one seems to know anything. They clam up like ­ well, like clams."

"Never mind, then," Nick replied sympathetically. "You can leave off the asking. I'm afraid His Grace has had us all chasing the proverbial wild goose. The cipherer was no one in his organisation and it seems he's known that all along. Why he's seen fit to hinder our investigation this way when he is the very person who pulled me into this mess, I have not yet determined. But I will," he mused with a steely glint in his black eyes. "I will. For now, I've another favour to ask of you, Shanty. My friend, Mrs. Bracegirdle here, was attacked and very nearly murdered last night. I want her out of harm's way ­ only for a few hours, you understand? If I thought I could not see this matter ended by tonight I should escort her to the country myself."

"Say no more, m'lad," Shanty understood the request. "Of course the lady is welcome to spend the day here. I do not know howeverour victuals are so thin just now" His voice trailed off and a mighty frown darkened his brow. Nick recognized the signs and said, "Give over, Shanty! The lady just handed you two guineas, a half-crown, three-shillings and I don't know how many pennies."

Shanty was shocked, his bushy brows rising toward his hairline in exclamation. "Nick! That money belongs to the Church! I could never go a-spending it as if it were my own money. That would be stealing! And ­."

"All right! All right! Here," Nick withdrew his purse from inside his coat and handed over several pound notes. "And see that you get anything and everything the lady desires to eat," he ordered. "You'll treat her better than you would the Queen or that new roof you've been wanting is liable to be pulled down around your ears." He kept a stern expression on his face all the while considering the pleasant prospect of Shanty's reaction when he discovered the full extent of Hetty's truly boundless appetite.

"O' course, Nick, o'course," the vicar soothed his ruffled friend. "What kind of rogue do you take me for? I do have some other news for you, if you're of a mind calm enough to listen without getting your blood all stirred."

There was only the faintest hint of -- fear? -- in Shanty's tone, one had to know him well to detect it. Nick's expression sharpened.

"Aye?"

"Someone has been asking questions about you. I was pointed out to him as someone who knew you."

"Who pointed you out?" Nick's tone was becoming dangerously soft, but a tiny crease was forming between his brows, an indicator Shanty remembered well from their rough and tumble days, and one which Hetty was coming to recognize.

"It was Fleer, d'ye remember him?"

Nick nodded. "Runs a thieves' den in Cheapside."

"Not any more, he got ousted. Lucky to get out with his life. But never mind about him. I know you'll be wanting to have a quiet word with him later, but forget about him for the moment. This man who was asking about you, he fair gave me chills, lad, and you know I don't take fright easy."

"What's he like? What did he want to know?"

"Tall, thin, fair-haired. Hatchet-faced, too. Perhaps two-score and ten."

Nick's black brows arched high over sparkling black eyes. "Well, well. What have we here?" he murmured to himself.

Hetty threw him a concerned glance and urged the vicar to continue.

"Mostly he just wanted to know where to find you. Asked whether you had any habits, daily routines, that kind of thing. I only got two guineas out of him before he was convinced I hadn't any information he could use. I'd be after suspecting he was interested in setting up an ambush for you."

"I'd be suspecting the same thing," Nick confirmed cheerfully, much to Hetty's alarm.

"Nicholas, don't you think you should return to Skeffington Street then? Lord St. James could help you. Nicholas, are you listening?" she demanded peremptorily.

He leaned over and kissed one plump, rosy cheek. "I am listening, dear Hetty, but I think we'd best leave Robin where he is. Keeping the watchers from discovering my absence is the best assistance he could provide. For now, I must be off, though I hope to return by dusk. And now you must promise me something, all right, Hetty? If I do not return by late evening, I must be either dead or under arrest. Shh, hush now, and listen. In that case, I want you to go to Ravenscar -- no, now wipe that obstinate look from your pretty face. I know you and he are like to come to cuffs every time you meet but if I am in gaol he will be the only man who can help me. If I am dead, he will have you escorted safely to your country house. When you go to him, tell him everything. Everything. Promise me, Hetty?" he urged.

Hetty sniffed and after a fine show of reluctance, gave her word. With a slashing grin, a quick hug, and another buss to her cheek, Nick was gone.
CHAPTER 40

 

Nick felt a peculiar singing in his blood, as Robin's coach bore him along past the houses of government that gave Parliament Street its name. The chess pieces were all moving nicely into place and by dusk the endgame should see it all finished. He laughed under his breath about the haphazard nature of his simple plan: Meet, for the first time, his half-brother, the Duke of Ravenscar; pin Simpson down and make him talk; find Silas Chilton ­ no matter the consequences, the man had to be made to pay for ordering Giles's execution so as to cover up his own misdeeds; and, not the least of his tasks, deal with Hetty's attacker.

Something was bound to go wrong, of course, which was why Nick considered himself to be, in ordinary circumstances or at least as he defined an ordinary circumstance, a supremely cautious fellow and a veritable demon for planning right down to the smallest detail. But certain people knew that about him: Ravenscar, probably; Chilton certainly; and a very few others. It was time to show them he would not dance to the tune of predictability. Nick Collins was perfectly capable of casting caution to the winds, if only to gain the element of surprise. Attempting all of this without taking along a sword or at least one of the Mantons smacked of foolhardiness, no doubt, but if he was out of the assassination business once and for all, he did not intend that he should find himself clapped up in a sheer hulk for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and in possession of a deadly weapon. Even the walking stick had been set aside, much to Splinter's dismay. The hat he would have worn, as it was not intended to carry weapons, but Splinter had not yet fully adapted it to Nick's requirements so he had worn Robin's, as well as the rest of Robin's outer garments.

Embarking on his mission without every bit of minutiae considered and accounted for was somehow very liberating, he found. The last time he had felt so wonderfully free had been the afternoon he practiced the climb up the harsh face of the cliff dividing Montfeuille from the sparkling blue Bay of Biscay, with his entire concentration devoted only to time, breath control, toeholds and footholds. Entirely alone, above him his goal and below him his death, should he either underestimate the cliff or overestimate his own skills, it was he alone against the rough stone. Face to face against the enemy for a change. Nothing more or less important than his life riding on his success, that was the joy of it. Not like later when he'd climbed the cliff in the darkness, his goal ­ Britain's goal -- to execute a man whose butcherous nature had lain waste to the people of Lyons. There was no joy found that night, save for those amazing few seconds after his leap from the parapet of the Chateau, when he first fell headlong then swayed gently down under a silken canopy into the waters of the bay. Nick grinned to himself. He'd have given a monkey to see Style's face after the seaman's own experience with a parachute.

Absently he stroked Charley's head as he pondered the events of the past two months and the great turn his life had taken. His career as an assassin, moreover his career as any king of government agent, was conclusively ended thanks to Ravenscar's manipulations. And the more time he spent with that notion the more comfortable he became with it, which surprised him not a little. His only concern was that his need for the excitement and energy demanded by his previous occupation would go unanswered, leading to a restlessness that ­ soon or late ­ was bound to become recklessness and land him in a scrape.

"Isn't that right, Charley?" he asked his companion, who licked his hand in perfect agreement.

At Downing Street, he dismissed the coachman with orders to return, not to Skeffington Street, but to the Earl's townhouse. If the coachman had been surprised at St. Margaret's to find Mr. Collins rather than his employer occupying the carriage, he kept his opinion of the "wery odd" behaviour of Quality to himself and did as he was paid to do: Keep quiet and drive.

Autumn was not yet in the air as the usual noisy throngs flocked the wide thoroughfare of Whitehall on this warm September day: Heavily-laden drays toting barrels of beer and ale rattled loudly over the stones; ambitious vendors were in full throat, hawking their wares; cavalrymen clattered along on well-groomed mounts to and from the Horse Guards Parade by St. James's Park, while a leather-lunged sergeant barked orders at a detachment of crisply marching foot soldiers. Nick purposefully wove his way through the shifting crowds and past the office of the Paymaster General, slowing only when he spotted the carriage.

It sat across from the Admiralty, facing towards Charing Cross. The coachman appeared half-asleep, so slumped to one side he was. There was no crest on the door, but Nick did not need to see one to know this was Ravenscar's equipage. He'd watched it from a distance enough times, just to catch a glimpse now and again of either the Duke himself or young Tristan, always careful not to be seen himself. The family resemblance, save for Nick's more diminutive frame, was sufficiently distinct that he felt he could ill-afford to catch His Grace's keen eye. In fact, he felt a good bit of ambivalence about ever meeting his half-brothers. He'd never, before today, sought to do so. Just the opposite, in fact. He'd kept himself well away from them. It wasn't as if those members of the nobility would be the slightest bit delighted to make his acquaintance. No, they'd be shamed by his very existence, the bastard half-brother whose mother had made a round-heeled living down in the rookeries. He had considered the possibility that they might seek to destroy him ­ or worse, suffer his existence in exquisitely polite condescension. Best just to just leave well enough alone had been both his conclusion and determination for years. Only now

Now, thanks to Robin's cheerful gossip, he knew that the Old Gentleman had been well aware of his connection to the powerful Ravenscar family, and because of that and also because the old man had hated the Ravenscars in a way that only terribly powerful men know how to hate, had deliberately taken Nick under his wing and turned him into a highly polished assassin. He wondered if the Old Gent's plan had been to someday produce Nick publicly as a major blot on the family escutcheon, or whether his hatred for the Duke went so deep as to call for Nick to someday receive a black-edged calling card bearing the name of Maximilian Ravenscar. Had the old Earl really thought Nick would at some point have become so cold-blooded, so caged by his loyalty to his masters, that he would kill his own brother if so ordered?

With a certainty more solid than the cliff at Montfeuille, Nick knew that he never could have done it; no, not even if King George commanded it to his face. With that single guinea tossed carelessly in his direction by His Majesty, Nick had begun the long and difficult climb out of the slums of London, and when little more than a youth had devoted himself to the secret service of the King. But now he knew his role in that service, his place in it, had been a sham, a farce designed to keep him ignorant while sharpening him into the tool that would someday work Ravenscar's destruction. But his very life had begun with a Ravenscar, and even if Nicholas Collins could never proclaim it and be acknowledged, it was a heritage that made him at once both secretly proud and fiercely humble. And he'd no least desire or intent to ever harm the only people in the world who shared his blood.

Even so, it was with his habitual caution that he approached the carriage from the side away from the Admiralty. One swift and careful glance inside showed him that His Grace was in residence, so to speak, and was keeping a watchful eye on the arched gateway that led through the screen wall and into the cobbled courtyard of Admiralty House. Taking a deep breath as though about to leap into deep water, Nick tugged open the carriage door and spoke.

"Good day, Your Grace. Might I have the privilege of some conversation with you?"

The Duke's head whipped around in Nick's direction, and the younger man exhaled sharply. He had never before been face to face with one of his brothers, so very near, and he was appalled by how moving he found the closer aspect. His Grace's visage was similar to Nick's in shape and colouring, but besides the apparent difference of a decade in their respective ages, was also more sardonic, with a harsh line etched deeply along either side of an aristocratic nose and thin-lipped mouth. His shock at seeing Nick was evident and His Grace was, much to the amazement of his wife and friends could they have only witnessed it, speechless.

Nick flashed a wary grin. "I shall take that as an affirmative, Your Grace. Charley, stay!" And with a light pull he was up and in the coach, settled across from Ravenscar, who eyed his uninvited guest with a curiosity not unmixed with anger. Indeed, His Grace was famous for his volatile temperament, as much as for his ability to consume vast quantities of alcohol with no noticeable effects, as Nick had made it his business to know.

The two men assessed each other for long moments, each liking what he saw: Nick beheld a tall, lean rough-tempered individual, but a man of character for all that, as sound as good English oak; a man of quick intelligence with little or no time for fools; a man of who wore the mantle of great power easily, inherited power perhaps but wielded with as watchful an eye as if he had won it by himself through years of struggle. Indeed, power suited this man, fit him as closely as a pair of Unmentionables: A good man to have as a friend, he was the last man anyone would want as an enemy.

For his part, Ravenscar was pleasantly surprised to see before him a clear-eyed young man with an open countenance that surely must be deceptive given the stories that had gone round the intelligence community about young Collins; the calm, reflective black eyes denoting an even temperament, the tiny lines just beginning to form at the outer corners of those eyes betraying a ready willingness to laugh. Dressed in the height of fashion, there was not a hint of the cold assassin about the lad: No pistol bulging from a pocket, no sword dangling by his side, not even a walking stick. Smart, too, Max thought. He must have worked out who had ordered him to guard Pellew's life or he'd not be here looking so big-eyed and full of questions as any schoolboy visiting Astley's Amphitheatre for the first time.

Nick smiled politely at his half-brother and asked bluntly, "Why did L'Oiseau report that I butchered Colonel DeVergesse? Why have you ruined my career, Your Grace?"

Max snorted and pulled an ornate silver flask from a pocket in the door of the carriage. He offered it to Nick, who refused gracefully. Maybe this boy wasn't so bright. It was a demmed fine brandy.

"You are a Ravenscar," he pronounced in grandiose style, stopping to take a pull from the flask.

"I know that," Nick said swiftly.

"Well, sir, I did NOT know it," the Duke's tone was sharp with displeasure, "not until very recently when a letter from the Earl of St. James ­ that would be the late Earl, not that popinjay currently bearing the title ­ his letter was delivered to me."

"Wrote to you from his grave, did he, sir?" Nick asked dryly.

"Belike," Max said with what was for him remarkable calm. He capped the flask and returned it to its pocket.

"His solicitor had orders to pass it on to me six months after his death. It was, I believe, intended to be his safeguard against death. He was a wily old fox, St. James was. He didn't take you under his wing because of your beaux yeux, y'know that, don't you? He picked you because you are a Ravenscar. He might have found other uses for you, but ultimately it was your blood that made you of any real use to him. Still, whatever his plans may have been in regard to you and me, he must have been aware of the possibility of his dying before they could be fully realized. From his letter, I would say that he devoted himself to earning your high regard, but you ought to know that he did not bear a mutual esteem for you."

The Duke shook his head, his wild black mane looking windblown, not as the result of an actual breeze but occurring due to a natural dishevelment of dress which plagued His Grace's valet far more than it perturbed him.

"The nature of the letter is so riddled with his insane hatred for all things Ravenscar that I think even England's premier assassin would be startled by it. I would not force its contents upon you, but you are welcome to read it for yourself do you not believe me."

Again, Nick rejected the offer explaining, "While I may once have regarded the late Earl as a benefactor, I have lately discovered my mistake in so doing. I will tell you plainly that I do not know what his ultimate goal was in making an assassin of me, an education I admit I embraced willingly, but things I have learned of late have given me reason to believe he would not have stopped at using me to murder you. And again I will tell you plainly; I would never have done it. Easy to say now, of course, and you have only my word on it. But it is the word of a Ravenscar." A tiny thrill coursed through Nick as for the first time he laid public claim to his lineage.

Max nodded. "Once aware of your existence, naturally I felt your choice of occupations to be poor indeed for one of Ravenscar blood so," he shrugged simply, "naturally I moved to put a stop to it."

"Ah, um, naturally," came the facetious agreement. "And step one in my rehabilitation was to order me to save a life, rather than take one, Your Grace?" Nick grinned, wondering if his blue-blooded relative thought assassination was something like drinking too much or eating opium, some sort of nasty vice from which he must be carefully weaned. Far from being so to Nick, the business of assassination was no more than an occupation which demanded skills he possessed in abundance and for which His Majesty's government had felt a great need. Killing could be rationalized and put aside as a matter of war; it was the demanding exercise of brain and body he would miss and must somehow replace.

Max almost smiled.

"Edward Pellew is my dearest and closest friend, and I had learned a plot to kill him was afoot. My order to you was, if you will pardon the expression, a way to kill two birds with one stone. But once you were imprisoned at Montfeuille, things changed. A fresh opportunity had presented itself."

"And how did you learn of my capture so quickly, sir?" Nick interjected. "I doubt the French gave you the news."

The flash of Max's wicked grin and his mobile black brows were nearly identical to Nick's.

"But in fact they did! The Frogs have that wonderful signal relay system all the way from Nantes to Paris. All over the bloody country in fact. And every signal going to or from Nantes is mine for the taking."

"You've a man in Nantes then who just happens to have the signal book, or else he's just down the coast, close enough to read the signals by telescope and relay them to ­ a boat, I'm guessing? Then the message gets all the way to London from ­ from Falmouth?" The name of that distant port once again began ringing gentle bells in Nick's memory. Something about Horatio? He made himself concentrate on the conversation. "From Nantes, I'd venture to say the information might in Your Grace's hands in less than twelve hours."

Max was pleased at this show of logic. "Excellent!"

"So you knew I was taken prisoner and you sent your agent L'Oiseau to help me escape?"

"Not exactly. And please," urged Max, "be very discreet with that name. I'm sure you understand why."

Nick nodded absently. "I remember enough of that last night in the Chateau to know that I did not kill DeVergesse, though I also know I had every intention of doing so. But ­ I must have been with fever already, not realizing it," he was almost talking to himself as he drew upon his sketchy memory of the events of that night.

"Chantal had just died; she had wounded Etienne only and I intended to see him dead. Not by my hand though, not directly. I remember I had some hazy idea of inducing him to commit suicide with Chantal's pistol, but then HE was there, the White Wolf, and I was thrown back against that damned stone wall and when I came to ­ God! It was like a something from a nightmare! Do you have any idea what kind of MONSTER he is? What he did that night?" Nick asked with a kind of sick anger. "I don't mean someone like me, who kills because of orders or duty or some misguided sense of loyalty! I mean a ravening beast, a --."

"I know precisely what you mean," Max said smoothly, "but we are not going to discuss it. He had orders from me that you were not to take any more lives. How he carries out his orders is entirely his decision. I informed him to take whatever measures he might to see you out of the bloody end of this business permanently, short of taking your life. He had carte blanche from me to handle the matter however he saw fit. But his own position in France is very tenuous, you know, he has worked his way into a position of great confidence, and it must be carefully guarded. He has been an invaluable source of information, and has saved countless British lives. When he kills, as ugly as his method may be, it is not indiscriminately. You must believe that. Like you, he follows orders. Unlike you, and because he must hourly take risks which would make even a reckless young'un such as yourself blanche, he has leeway to do what he must to protect his position. As for you, you are a Ravenscar, like it or not, and I will not have it said that we breed murderers in this family. He settled both that issue and your desire for the Colonel's death with the actions he took that night, so we should both be happy we have got what we wanted. The information he later gave against you, though false, was sufficient I hope to prevent you from returning to a career that could have only led to an early grave."

"Damn my career!" swore Nick. "D'ye think I care a whit for it now? What I want to know is: Do you know what he is? Have you ever seen him when he starts to turn --?"

Max held up a warning hand. "This discussion is over."

The tone was so final, his attitude so dismissive as he resumed watching the gates to Admiralty House, that Nick knew it was useless to pursue the topic of Daniel L'Oiseau any further.

After a few moments Nick recovered his aplomb and having decided -- for the moment -- to overlook his half-brother's meddling in his affairs, said cheerily, "Well, then, I'm off to see a man about a job." At a sharp glance from Max, he added, "Calm yourself, Your Grace! Not a job for me, you know, but rather the job he's been working on." He reached for the door and the Duke's voice stopped him.

"You wouldn't." The tone was certain.

Nick thought about that for several seconds.

"I would," he asserted.

"Then I am coming with you. God only knows what havoc you are like to wreak by openly confronting the villain."

Max roared out an order to open the door and let down the steps. The coachman, who had indeed fallen asleep on the box, jerked suddenly awake and the momentary loss of balance was enough to send him tumbling down into the road, to the great amusement and mockery of the passersby. Charley stood over the driver and barked fiercely, his tail wagging in a manner suggesting the man needed a good biting to set him straight. Nick opened the door and jumped down, calling for Charley to behave, with Max following. A stream of abuse was hurled at the coachman's head as the man scrambled to his feet, seeming not a whit the worse for his fall. In one breath, Max cursed the man for a shameless layabout; fired the man; urged him to a sip of his own brandy to recover his wits; and ordered him to wait there.

"And by God, you witless numskull, you had better be awake and at your post when I return," thundered the Duke, "or tomorrow you will be driving Her Grace!"

The man went absolutely ashen at this threat, a reaction which fascinated Nick and made him greatly curious as to what the personality of the Duchess must be, when the thought of driving her could actually bring tears to a grown man's eyes and induce that man to humbly beg His Grace's forgiveness.

Nick called Charley to his side as he crossed the street in company with Ravenscar, leaving behind a genuinely penitent driver.

"What precisely do you intend to say to Mr. Simpson?" Max queried as the two men strolled unhurriedly through the wrought-iron gates and beyond the screen wall.

"I don't expect I shall have to say anything beyond introducing myself," Nick replied carelessly. "He knows who I am and I suppose Ormsby or Caswell will have provided enough gruesome details from my past that I hope to surprise the truth out of him. Or scare it out, or threaten it out. Makes not a whit of difference to me."

Max snorted indelicately but was secretly pleased at Collins' use of the word 'past.'.

"That's your plan, is it? Let me tell you, Simpson has been mighty cool up till now. I don't know that the sight of your face is likely to turn his bowels to water. Aye, laugh, but as of the wee hours of this morning Ormsby is one of those gruesome details you were mentioning."

Nick came up short.

"Who?" he said simply.

"Well, Tristan -- he's my brother, you know --."

"Mine as well, but we'll let that pass for the moment."

"Tristan and I both reckoned on you for the killer at first, but lucky for you we had men watching who swear you never went anywhere near the man, else you'd be clapped up in Brideswell this very minute."

Nick nodded and walked on. "Simpson then?"

"No, not him either."

"I can hardly believe that weak-kneed Caswell --," Nick began doubtfully.

"No fear," Max assured him, "James Caswell has been under close arrest since leaving the Eversleigh party. Wisely for him, that otherwise incredibly foolish young man has chosen to say nothing so far, though I doubt he will escape the noose when all's said and done. That leaves --."

"Chilton," Nick finished for him. "I know he's in London. He's intent on covering his part in all this and killing anyone that can place a rope around his neck. He ordered the execution of one of his own cutouts in Ushant. Deliberately gave the order to me, the blackguard," he said bitterly. "And now he's done for Ormsby as well. Oh, God!" He swore suddenly and broke into a run, nearly knocking over the porter standing inside the entrance to the Admiralty. Following closely, Max ran broadside into a small woman draped in widow's weeds, knocking her to the ground.

"Where is Simpson's office?" Nick demanded, pulling a grateful Max away from assisting the loudly squawking woman, who was flapping about and berating the Duke in a voice more befitting to a fishwife than to a recent widow. Charley scampered about her, alternately barking and growling at the woman, his ruff standing furiously out above his shoulders.

"Charley, quiet!" Nick ordered, and gave a quick hand signal to the animal to stay.

"Down that hall," Max pointed. They were running again, oblivious alike to the protests of the outraged widow, the angry gentlemen they brushed aside, as well as Charley's keen whine of displeasure at being left behind. And then, "There! That door."

With no fanfare Nick flung the door wide, sending it crashing back against the wall.

From his chair behind a highly polished mahogany desk, Jonathan Simpson stared blankly at the two men who stood transfixed in the doorway, a look of supreme astonishment on his face.

"I -- I --," he stammered, and fell face forward onto the desk. From his back protruded a large ugly knife.
CHAPTER 41

Nick needed no more than one glance to know nothing could now either save Simpson or be learned from him.

"Damn it!" he whispered. "We've just missed Chilton! He might still be in the building."

And with that, he turned and ducked under Max's arm back into the hall. Looking first left, then right, he could not spy anywhere the familiar spidery stick figure that was Silas Chilton. Without waiting for Max he moved briskly back to the left toward the entrance, examining everyone he passed. Silas would try to brazen it out, he reckoned, and get out of the building before anyone discovered Simpson's body. Stepping around a ridiculously young post-captain whose sword seemed to be hindering his ability to walk at a normal pace, Nick caught his breath.

Lord! There was Chilton coming up the hall right at him!

He hadn't seen Nick yet. No, there. Now he had. At the sight of Nick and with scarcely a pause, a spasm of utter hatred contorted Chilton's sharp features as he drew his sword with a flourish and charged at Nick. At the sight of the drawn weapon, someone called out, "I say, put that away, old man! No dueling here!"

Nick took a step backward, and without taking his eyes off Chilton, politely said, "May I?" to the boyish captain and withdrew the officer's sword without waiting for a reply.

There were no formalities, not so much as en garde even. Chilton was swiftly upon him and his blade slid against Nick's borrowed steel with a resounding clang of metal. And with that first touch of weapons came to Nick an almost immediate awareness that he was facing a master, someone far more practiced than he in the art of fencing. A nasty surprise that. Who'd have thought old Silas would have the backbone to spend countless hours learning all the ways to carve up another man, especially face to face?

Robin, Nick thought with a touch of humour, should be here to witness this. Wasn't Robin always telling him he needed to dedicate more time to the foil? He really ought to pay more attention to Robin. If he survived this encounter, he decided he would buy himself a dozen nightshirts. Perhaps even two dozen. Ah, well, he'd known something must go wrong with his less-than-carefully laid plan. That would teach him more patience in future, wouldn't it?

Wouldn't it? Would there be a future, he thought fleetingly.

To any man watching who might have had no knowledge of swordplay, it must still have been readily apparent that the older, taller man had far more than simply the advantage of reach over the smaller, younger man. Spidery and jerky in movement when merely walking, with a sword in hand Chilton possessed the refined grace of a ballet dancer. That his chosen weapon was the epee told Nick much about his opponent: Chilton was not at all interested in merely drawing first blood as per the rules of dueling. He wanted Nick's life. And he was very, very good.

After a few cries to cease and desist, the passersby who had frozen at the first sight of drawn swords grew quiet. More gentlemen came from their offices to see what was the matter.

And then the only sounds were the scraping of blades and heavy breathing. Nick was forced to give ground rapidly as Chilton's attacks on the blade, changes of engagement, and redoubles were so astonishingly swift that Nick barely had time to parry, with only the smallest deflections of his opponent's steel possible. On the piste, Nick would have run out of room to maneuver. But this was a long, wide hallway in the Admiralty, and he was thankful for it.

Lunge!

Nick could barely react let alone parry.

Reprise!

Desperately he parried.

Redoublement and recovery. God, Chilton was quick as a cat! Here came the balestra, the two-footed jump followed by a lunge. His extension was classical, perfect, the line of body and sword seeming to stretch beyond belief.

And the point sliced lightly across Nick's right shoulder as he edged back just that fraction of an inch beyond full reach of the deadly epee. It was enough to draw blood but a quick flex of the muscle told Nick no real damage had been done. At the sight of blood some of the watchers cried out, "A hit! Put up! Put up!" but were ignored.

When the blades clashed again, Nick drew his focus tighter, trying to feel his opponent at the end of the opposite weapon. The French called it sentiment du fer, or the feeling of the blade. If he could achieve it -- if he could stay alive long enough to achieve it -- he would be able to read Chilton's strategy as clearly as if he were reading the words from a book. Nick had always thought it a hopelessly inadequate term, particularly coming from the French who were usually so adept at le mot juste. He had only ever felt it when he was both relaxed and totally focused. Part of it came from the subtle pressures of the opponent's blade, true, but it seemed to Nick on those rare occasions when it happened that his opponent's thoughts and emotions flowed like water down through the blades and into him.

With every feint, parry, deception, coupe, Nick's brain conjured up and discarded a dozen ideas for engaging as he was yet still on the defensive. Chilton seemed tireless even as the younger man tried to work against his wrist and forearm as much as he could, the standard reaction to a superior swordsman. Nick's own stamina, though it had rebounded amazingly since his illness, was still not what it had once been. Sweat poured from him, dampening his black curls and glistening upon his brow and upper lip. Yet as close as Chilton's glittering blade shaved against him time and again, to the collective gasping of the onlookers, he showed no trace of losing confidence.

Nor was he.

Now that he was becoming attuned to both Chilton and his classical style, he could assess the best ways to disconcert him. And suddenly Nick realized Chilton was almost too perfect, too classical in style. In his training, which must have been lengthy and vigorous with a master of the art, Chilton had acquired a sense of what was right and perfect, and that was how he fenced: Within the restraint of the rules of his classical training. It was doubtful Silas Chilton had ever faced a man in mortal combat, particularly a man who fought back with every ounce of tenacity and one who had himself on many occasions stared down an almost-certain death and won. It was doubtful Chilton had ever learned that mortal combat, unlike fencing on the piste, came without rules of conduct. That Nick Collins came without those rules as well.

Time to rattle his composure a touch.

When Chilton snapped back into one of his flawless recoveries, Nick engaged and for the first time went on the attack, a prise de fer, his narrowly circling forte winding down the length of Chilton's blade, surprising both Chilton as well as the onlookers. To retreat was Chilton's instinct and technically, classically, the right move, but almost too late the older man realized that to do so meant he would be left open to a lunge. Instead he stepped forward until the two men were pressed shoulder to shoulder, points toward the ceiling. Staring into the cold blackness of Nick's eyes Chilton suddenly felt a shiver of the sentiment du fer himself, as the coldly implacable and unrelenting nature of his enemy broke through his composure. Suddenly he remembered the number of times Nick had been ordered to kill, and how very rarely had failed those orders. And one instance in particular sprang to mind: It was as though a portrait of an accusatory Giles could be seen in Nick's eyes and Chilton felt his confidence waver momentarily. Just as he broke away from the repugnant corps a corps, Nick's free hand came swiftly around, delivering a perfectly timed openhanded slap to Chilton's face, knocking him off balance for a fraction of a second before he sprang back out of reach of Nick's borrowed sword as it followed him. Someone cried, "Foul!" at Nick's action but a soft word from the Duke of Ravenscar quieted the commentator.

Chilton's narrow eyes widened in betrayal of his shock at this forbidden, uncivilized blow, one entirely beyond the bounds of all rules of engagement. The slap violated every principle of classical fencing and because of that, as Nick had hoped, Chilton felt it more deeply than he might have otherwise. The red handprint now blazoned on the side of his face was testament to the force and humiliation of the blow. Panting, he fairly radiated with rage, and once again the blades clashed as he attacked Nick savagely, the ringing of the steel echoing loudly in the hushed hall.

Deeply, bitterly angry, wanting Nick Collins dead now, this very instant, wanting it done in the purely classical style, wanting Collins to pay for his crudeness, wanting his own mastery to be perfect, he feinted in seconde. Nick parried in the low-outside line, but his movement seemed slow at first, then he pressed with a sudden burst of pressure, almost too much pressure. Chilton immediately disengaged into sixte and again executed the perfect lunge, the point of the blade aiming straight for Nick's heart.

But Nick was no longer there.

With a speed Chilton had underestimated, Nick had completely disengaged and leapt aside. The impetus of the thrust, with nothing to stop the blade, carried Chilton forward. Off-balance, he stumbled to one knee. Before he could recover Nick had stepped in front of him and, sword lowered disparagingly to his side, spat full in Chilton's face before backing out of reach as Chilton was swiftly up and guarded again.

"Damn it, Collins!" the Duke swore softly to himself. "He's too dangerous to play with. Finish it!"

Chilton rose, wiping his face on his sleeve, his emotional composure shredded. There was no thought now of strategy and mastery, there was only an unadulterated wave of wrath that swept away all reason.

And this time when the attack ensued, the pace was blistering. But now Chilton's loss of emotional control rendered it heedless, reckless beyond reproof, and Nick took immediate advantage, riposting and attacking en fleche. Chilton viciously parry-riposted in quarte and Ravenscar nearly cried out, for it should have hit Nick but he -- had the lad REALLY parried prime, still en fleche? Ravenscar blinked, thinking that couldn't be right, it just wasn't done. Couldn't be done, could it? Well, yes, it could, but...

But then Nick riposted by cutover.

My God! An insane tactic! Ravenscar's vision blurred.

But it worked.

When Max could again focus, Chilton stood disarmed, the glittering epee landing with a clang on the marble floor at the foot of a gentleman who seemed appalled to find he weapon so close. Nick's own point was at Chilton's throat, the blade circling lightly.

"Remember, Silas?" Nick asked hoarsely, between deep breaths. "Remember what I said to you at Ushant?" The blade dropped level with Chilton's heart, and with a flurry sliced through waistcoat and shirt to bare that portion of his chest.

"Collins, listen to me," Max said firmly. "That man is officially under arrest."

He snapped his fingers at the nearest uniformed officers, and ordered them to seize Chilton. None of them made a move, nor would they until Nick either dropped his sword or ran his man through. Though he was exhausted, yet Nick's blade never wavered, his black eyes gleaming with anticipation, the steel point now pressing hard enough into the flesh that a single drop of blood ran freely down Chilton's pale, hairless chest.

"Nick!" Max snapped again, not realizing that for the first time since learning of his half-brother's existence he was using Nick's Christian name. Nick heard it though and smiled to himself. Chilton interpreted the smile differently, and shuddered with fear. When the sword bit still deeper into his chest he gave out with a faint moan and suddenly fainted.

And Nick stood over him, his entire world seeming to narrow until he saw only the insect at his feet, appearing all too ready to keep his promise to tear out Chilton's heart, wanting with all his own heart to believe that if he did so it would somehow make up for killing Giles.

A low growl rumbled along the hall, soft at first, then more loudly, nearer, more threatening. Slowly, then more quickly, the crowd parted and Charley stalked through with regal bearing, intent upon his master. Nick took no heed.

The great animal gave a short, sharp series of barks at his master, an apparent reprimand that failed to penetrate Nick's consciousness. His sword arm drew back as if for the final plunge, and as it did an outraged Charley sank his incisors deeply into Nick's left calf.

CHAPTER 42

Nick loosed an oath so virulent that every gentleman within earshot took a healthy pace backward. He dropped the sword and turned on Charley.

"You malodorous cur," he bit out in scathing accents, "you imbecilic lump! I wasn't going to kill him!"

Trying first in vain desperation to claw a hole in the marble floor into which he might bury himself, a chagrined Charley then made a great show of repentant groveling that would have put a corrupt politician to shame for its blatant theatrics, writhing along on all fours, belly and chin to the ground, all the while whimpering incessantly.

"I don't care a fig what it may have looked like!" Nick threw out, as if responding to some comment from Charley. "I cannot believe that after all these weeks you still do not trust me."

Charley raised his head and retorted with a single, sharp yip, a peculiarly high-pitched sound for an animal of his size and evident ferocity.

"No such thing!" Nick denied, oblivious to the wide-eyed spectators taking in this one-sided debate. "What I may have wanted to do and what I would have done are two very different things entirely. But you, sir, disobeyed an order. I do not consider that a trifling offense, let me assure you!"

His diatribe continued even as a getting-along-in-years lieutenant observed, "Poor lad. Queer as Dick's hatband, that one. Talking to dogs and all. His family ought to watch him close," he advised Ravenscar.

"You may trust me when I say his family watches him VERY closely," Max avowed earnestly, more than a little bemused by the cascading events of the past half-hour.

Nick retrieved his fallen sword, and limped over to return it with heartfelt gratitude to its wide-eyed owner, who accepted it without a word before hustling away abruptly, just in case whatever 'twas plagued the curly-headed chap was infectious. Too exhausted by the energetic demands of the duel to be the least bit embarrassed by his chat with Charley, Nick then made his way over to Max, with a mournful Charley so close to his backside that if Nick had stopped abruptly surgery might have been necessary to remove the beast.

"You are taking charge here, Your Grace?" At Max's nod, he went on. "Then might I beg the use of your carriage?"

"Yes, best have that leg seen by a physician right off," Max agreed. "No telling what diseases that beast may harbor."

Charley poked his head around past Nick's thigh and growled menacingly at Max, his nose flipping back to expose the full length of his threat. Startled, Max retreated but Nick only laughed.

"Go ahead, bite a Duke," his master encouraged facetiously, his leg still smarting. "See if he don't have your mangy carcass shot."

Charley pretended not to hear, the corner of his upper lip lifting in what might have been a canine sneer, but he disappeared again behind Nick for all that, and Max bit his lip to keep from laughing. Master and dog were as good as any farce in Drury Lane.

"I'll stop around at your place in Skeffington Street when I've finished here," Max informed the departing Nick as he limped away. "We've still a good deal to discuss."

Nick waved carelessly as he hurried off, Charley in tow. Then, stopping abruptly as if suddenly remembering something, he called back to Max.

"By the way, Your Grace, it would be a good thing if you did not charge Chilton with Simpson's murder."

Max was astonished. "Why ever not?"

Nick grinned, a wicked white flash.

"Because he didn't do it, of course. Chilton was going TOWARDS Simpson's office when we had our little contretemps."

"But then ­ who?" demanded the ever-irascible Ravenscar. "There's no one left, dammit!"

"Oh, yes, there is," Nick whistled a suddenly straying Charley back to his side. "I think you knocked her down as we came into the building."

CHAPTER 43

As Nick and Charley were crossing the cobblestone courtyard, a dusty and dilapidated hackney coach made a dangerously sharp turn off Whitehall through the iron gates.

"Nicholas!" His name was a squeal. "Nicholas, wait! Wait!"

In the certain knowledge that such a porcine reverberation could only spring from Henrietta Bracegirdle, he tugged Charley to one side and waited while the rickety coach came to a rattling halt. One black brow arched curiously as Tristan Ravenscar first leaped down from the carriage, then impatiently assisted Hetty to alight. Nick limped over to greet Hetty, giving her a hearty squeeze, and chiding gently, "Afrighted for me, were you, m'dear? All's well, as you see. Chilton is under arrest and I am yet a free man."

This last was directed at Tristan as much as at Hetty. The two half-brothers alternately stared at each other, then looked away. Strange that this meeting should somehow seem so much more awkward than meeting the Duke.

Hetty dismantled the barriers with the innocent observation. "My, don't the two of you resemble one another! I'd never have remarked on it without seeing the two of you together."

Tristan laughed self-consciously, then looking Nick straight in the eye, he thrust out a hand and said simply, "I'm Tristan."

A smile of singular sweetness lit up Nick's countenance, and his dark eyes fairly glowed.

"Nick," he said, grasping the proffered hand. The two men wrung hands with a rare gladness.

"Well, Nick, you madcap rogue," Tristan charged, suddenly feeling he had known his half-brother most of his life, "what have you done with Max? Locked him in a cupboard somewhere? Tied him to a figurehead? Sent him down the Thames in a rowboat?"

Nick was the picture of innocence.

"You cannot be referring to me. Play fast and loose with a duke of the realm? He's inside," he pointed at Admiralty House, "dealing with Chilton. I was just on my way to collect you, m'dear," and here he addressed Hetty, "but I see you are before times."

His tone gently hinted at his unhappiness that Hetty had not kept her promise to wait until late evening before seeking out the Duke. Tristan tried to explain.

"When I realized how you had diddled us all, eluding us by walking out your front door right under my nose, I headed for the only place I knew you might go. St. Margaret's. And there I encountered Mrs. Bracegirdle who related the entire story to me over a few refreshments, and then insisted on accompanying me to find Max."

"I have been quite beside myself with worry, Nicholas. You can have no notion. Lud, I simply could not bring myself to eat anything but the smallest morsels!"

Tristan's eyebrows flew up at this declaration, remembering the swift manner in which Mrs. Bracegirdle had dispatched three syllabubs, a custard tart, and a plate of biscuits, all washed down with three pots of Bohea, and he stared at Hetty with something akin to an awe of the dismissive style of speech which to his mind bore no resemblance to the unmistakable devastation she had wrought upon the vicarage larder, as well as the profound state of shock to which the vicar himself had been reduced.

"Never mind, then," soothed Nick. "We've just one task before us and then we shall return to Skeffington Street where, I promise you, Mrs. Splinter will prepare for us an early supper."

"Oh, Nicholas! Really? Supper?"

Hetty was in alt. Mrs. Splinter was a superb and generous chef, but Nicholas never had guests for supper. Unexpected guests might interrupt his breakfast, dinner and tea on any day at all whenever he was in London and be made genuinely welcome, but not even a favorite such as Hetty had ever received an invitation to supper.

"Certainly," he assured her, patting one plump hand which, encased tightly in a fawn-colored glove, resembled nothing so much as clutch of sausages falling from her sleeve.
"In fact, this day marks something of an occasion for me. Perhaps you would care to join us this evening, Tristan? I believe His Grace intends stopping by as well."

"Only name the hour," Tristan declared.

"Shall we say eight of the clock? I know it is a trifle early for dining in town but --."

"I shall probably be rudely early," the tall young man with overly large feet informed him earnestly. "I have a great many questions to put to you. Well, then, I suppose I really ought to go and lend Max a hand." He made a move away but it was patently obvious that Tristan did not want to part so soon from Nick.

"I daresay," Nick said softly, also regretting the immediate separation. "I've an important errand to run with Hetty just now, so"

Once again the two men shook hands, before Tristan broke contact. With a hasty au revoir to Hetty, he walked quickly away.

Nick stared solemnly after him, sighing a little, whereupon Hetty reproved him by saying that if he was going to fall into a case of the dismals she'd far rather young Ravenscar accompanied them whereever they were bound.

"Would you really not mind?" Nick asked eagerly. "We are going to make a rather special social call, and it's to be in your honour. I think it won't be spoilt for you if he comes along."

"Of course it won't," she concurred, which prompted his dazzling smile once more. Nick called out Tristan's name.

When, with eager alacrity he had rejoined the pair, his expression expectant, Nick said, "I think that after leaving you high and dry this afternoon it would be too mean of us not to include you in this. I think you will be interested in where we are going, if you would care to accompany us after all?"

"A mystery, is it? Try and stop me! Shall we take Max's coach?" suggested Tristan.

Hetty nearly fainted from pleasure: A supper prepared by Mrs. Splint preceded by a drive in a DUKE's carriage. Had there ever been a day so grand? She gave serious thought to that question as she ransacked her reticule for the muffin placed there hastily when that nipfarthing of a vicar hadn't been looking.

CHAPTER 44

After a short drive during which Nick related to Hetty and Tristan a highly expurgated version of events at Whitehall, he had the driver stop at the corner of Upper Curzon Street, a rather fashionable locale with neat houses mostly rented or let by the Upper Ten Thousand. Assuring Hetty the walk was not far, Nick had barely finished speaking when he paused before a residence entirely undistinguished by any excess of pride in upkeep.

"Oh, but --." Hetty stopped, looked at the house, and looked back at Nick in some confusion.

"Nicholas, this is Jane Durberry's house! Why ever did you think I might want to visit someone so so someone like her," she finished, her speech unusually guarded, the brief ride in His Grace's coach having had either an elevating effect on her sense of discretion or a lowering effect on her usual candor.

"I thought," Nick said, taking her arm as they approached the door, "you might like the pleasure of taking into custody the person who tried to strangle you yester-eve. Do close your mouth, Hetty, it's so much more becoming."

Tristan was intrigued.

"D'you mean to say that this Durberry woman is part of the conspiracy to kill Sir Edward?"

"All I will say for now is that it was she who tried to strangle Hetty last night. Who else could it have been? For although we can agree you are quite robust," Tristan's eyes crossed for a second and Nick frowned at him, "I think perhaps you are not strong enough to have fought off Caswell, had he been bent on murder, and Tristan was the only other man in the garden. Yes, my dear Henrietta, I can see you're still grappling with the notion but do pull yourself together. In another few minutes you shall be face to face with Jane Durberry. Give that knocker a thump, would you, Tristan?"

Tristan's energetic method of engaging a doorknocker brought swift results. The butler proved a baggy, shapeless man of perhaps five-and-thirty, his expression that of one who had recently sucked an unripe persimmon, his slouchy posture belonging more to a stable lad than to an upper servant.

"Mrs. Durberry, please," Nick requested.

"The mistress ain't at home to no one." Persimmon Head started to shut the door but was enormously surprised to find an excessively large foot preventing him.

"Mrs. Durberry," insisted Tristan coldly, bringing every ounce of breeding to bear on the insignificant creature blocking his path, "will see a Ravenscar. You may show us to a parlor, then inform the lady I am here."

The butler gave ground reluctantly, leading them to a pleasantly decorated parlor done up in tones of peach and cream, a combination which worked mightily on Hetty's appetite, though she remained silent for all that. The slight narrowing of her beady eyes told Nick she was heavily cogitating upon the idea of Jane Durberry's attempt to wring the life out of her. When her eyes widened, a flush ran up her plump cheeks, and she gave a little gasp, he knew she was now angry as any hornet whose nest had been disturbed.

"Who else shall I say is calling?" the butler demanded, his sour features contorting with displeasure.

"You shall not say," Tristan retorted hotly. "You impudent rascal! Now take yourself off and do as you are bid, before I do you a mischief!"

With what might have been a bow but appeared more like a brief spasm, the butler disappeared.

"Very masterful," teased Nick. "Is it birth or breeding?"

"It's the feet that does it," Tristan offered modestly, fluttering his lashes.

"No doubt about it," Nick eyed askance the enormous custom-made Hessians Tristan wore, "the thought of one of those coal barges being planted forcefully along his backside was all 'twas necessary to persuade the chap to see the matter our way. Do you think this canape is as comfortable as it appears?" He sat down gingerly and stood up again immediately. "No, it isn't."

"Do you think that is a genuine Van Dyck?" Tristan moved closer to the portrait hanging over the mantlepiece. "Hmm. 'Od's body, I do believe it is!"

" 'Od's body?" laughed Nick. "Does anyone still say that? I thought young bloods of the ton were supposed to say 'By Jupiter?'"

Tristan had no opportunity to reply, for the parlor door opened slowly and in slinked Mrs. Jane Durberry, a small, buxom woman with soft blond hair tumbling down her back, a woman whose delicate features and sensuous lips bore only faint traces as yet of dissipation. She had left off the heavy black veils and draperies of the widow's weeds she had been wearing when Max had crashed into her at the entrance to the Admiralty. Now she was en deshabille, rather scantily clad in a silky peignoir, a good portion of her bounteous charms exposed to view, with the wide dark eyes of Nick and Tristan taking full advantage.

"Your Grace --!" The hoarse purr was cut off sharply. Having been informed by the butler that Ravenscar wanted to see her, and unable to think of any reason he might be calling on her when he had never before done so ­ despite any number of sultry hints she had dropped -- she had foolishly flattered herself that His Grace was finally tired of his shrew of a Duchess and now sought more amicable companionship. But she did not know these people. Or did she? At the sight of Hetty, a slight flicker of recognition crossed her face and was quickly masked.

 

"Who are you people? How dare you force your way in here? Leave now," she ordered peremptorily, "or I shall have you forcibly ejected."

Nick looked at Tristan, who gave him back the look. Both men looked at Hetty, but her bright button eyes were fixed on Mrs. Durberry.

Trundling her bulk across the room until she stood nose to nose with Mrs. Durberry, Hetty said furiously, "Go right ahead. Forcibly eject me! Or should I turn my back and let you try to strangle me?"

It probably was not the wisest choice on Jane Durberry's part to first try to brazen her way through it, then to take a verbal jab at Hetty personally.

"I have no idea what you're talking about, or even who you are," she kept her voice low and even as she tried on indignity to see how it suited her. "How do you dare force your way into my home and speak to me in such a manner, you ­ you stupid cow!"

Not the most intelligent woman, Nick reckoned, perching himself on the arm of wingback chair as he watched, but then she made the fatal mistake of trying to push a fighting-mad Hetty away from her. For this woman to even attempt to lay hands on her again was anathema to Hetty.

With a quick jab from one hefty paw, Hetty planted a facer that sent the blonde woman reeling backwards. Tristan flinched, ever so slightly. "Excellent science," he murmured. "That eye will be black in an hour."

"Better go upstairs and put some clothes on," Hetty suggested. "Unless you prefer going to the gibbet looking like the cheap tart you are."

With an angry cry Jane made a run at Hetty. A major mistake. Nick closed his eyes as if he couldn't bear to watch. Another solid punch to the other eye sent her staggering back again, and when Hetty made a move to follow it up Jane let out a shrill scream and tried to hide behind Tristan.

"Are you just going to let that-that madwoman assault me?" she shrieked in her natural voice, a hoarse, ugly sound that hinted at damaged vocal cords. Nick wondered if someone had once tried to throttle Mrs. Durberry ­ and nearly succeeded.

Tristan gave only a moment's thought to her question. "Yes, madam, I am," he said, and stood aside to give Hetty access.

Hetty reached for her, but Jane screamed again and tore herself away, leaving Hetty with a fistful of sheer silk.

"You BITCH!" she screamed like a raucous parrot, trying to cover her bosom. "Look what you've done to me!"

"I haven't done anything yet," stormed Hetty, chins atremble, "but I'd like to slap you to sleep, you little trollop! You were halfway out of that rag anyway when you walked in here. If these two had been alone," she jerked a thumb at Nick and Tristan who were observing with twin expressions of polite interest, "you'd have shed it on your own by now."

"What do you want from me?" Jane cried out, the perfect picture of a helpless woman. It was enough to incite Hetty to riot, but Nick decided it was time for a little decorum.

"Only the smallest thing," he assured Mrs. Durberry, stepping between the two women and restraining Hetty with only the merest shake of his head. "You may tell us why you wanted Sir Edward Pellew dead, and why you killed Ninian Ormsby and Jonathan Simpson."

She gaped at him in such profound horror that he might have been some ghoul freshly arisen from the grave. Then she burst into tears, sobbing out her words.

"I never!" she wailed. "I never would kill my dear Ninian! He was the dearest brother I could ever have! You believe me, don't you?" she whimpered, scrubbing at her eyes with both hands. "I went to see Ninian after the party last night, I had to tell him that James had been arrested. But Ninian was already dead and it -- it was so h-h-horrible what that man did to him. He had to pay for killing Ninian, he had to die!"

"Good God!" exclaimed Nick, not certain why he was at all taken aback at the lack of honour among killers. "You killed Simpson because you thought he had killed Ormsby?"

"He did!" she screamed her insistence. "He murdered my poor Ninian!"

Nick had no interest in correcting her misapprehension. She would learn soon enough, at her trial if not beforehand, that Silas Chilton was the man responsible for slaying Ormsby.

"What about Sir Edward?" Nick demanded, pushing her hands away roughly as she started to try to cling to him.

"I don't know anything about that," she denied. "That was something James ­ James Caswell was mixed up in."

"Ormsby was up to his neck in it, so don't try telling us you knew nothing about it," Nick said coldly. "You knew enough to recognize the danger when Hetty eavesdropped on Ormsby's little chat with Simpson last night. You knew enough to decide to murder her right then!"

"Please, Nicholas," Hetty urged, almost dancing with rage, "I can make her talk."

"I know you can," he agreed, "and if she doesn't speak up right this instant I shall let you ride alone with her in the carriage to Bow Street, I promise."

"No!" The Durberry woman wanted no more of Hetty. "No, please, keep her away from me." She sucked in a deep breath. "That murdering Simpson," she spouted venomously, "it was all his idea. He wanted Pellew dead because of his nephew. He said Pellew had shot and killed his nephew, that it was cold-blooded murder but that the Admiralty had chosen to overlook it, to cover it up because Pellew was so popular in the press, with his war record and all. His name is forever showing up in the Gazette, I guess. So Mr. Simpson wanted revenge and he paid Ninian to spy on that ­ that woman," she pointed a shaky finger at Hetty, "to learn about Pellew's movements. Ninian told me later that Simpson had hired a man out on Ushant to set some killers onto Pellew and that James, that is, Mr. Caswell, was being paid to get the messages back and forth between them all. So I made up to Mr. Caswell, to try to learn everything that Simpson and the others were up to. I thought Ninian had got in too deep, that if any of it ever came out he might hang. But that monster killed him!"

She burst into fresh tears.

Tristan stood and swept a low bow before Hetty.

"Mrs. Bracegirdle, would you care to do the honours?"

She was puzzled for a moment and then her round face was creased with delight. "It will be a great pleasure, sir." She faced her adversary and pronounced in a stentorian voice: "Jane Durberry, in the name of the Crown I arrest you for the murder of Jonathan Simpson!"

CHAPTER 45 ­ CONCLUSION

"Lawks, Ephraim, only fancy. Me, cooking for a Duke and a Duchess!"

Mary Splinter was torn between joy at having the honour of cooking for a couple only one step removed from royalty, and anxiety that although all had gone smoothly so far, the roast might yet burn, the souffle could still sink, the pudding turn watery, or any number of other countless disasters might befall her carefully organized and meticulously prepared supper.

Splinter grinned at his wife. "If you're think you're happy, my love, come here and let me show you something."

"Ephraim!" she chided in surprise. "Not now!"

He laughed. "Now, Mary, as if I would, when I know how much this supper means to you. But come with me, do, just for a minute."

With a look that told him it had better be ONLY a minute, she set down the bowl she was stirring, wiped her hands down the crisp apron she wore, and followed her husband down the hall from the kitchen to the dining room. Edging the door open just enough for the pair to peep through, he whispered, "Just look at 'im, Mary. Did you ever see the boy so happy in all his life?"

She stared at Nick for a long moment and abruptly withdrew, hustling back to her kitchen. Ephraim was a little disappointed that she had not seen for herself how the master fairly glowed with a deep happiness, and slowly he followed her. Surprised not to see her standing at the table again, stirring the bowl she had put aside, he glanced around and realized she must have gone into the pantry for something.

"Mary, didn't you --?"

He stopped and smiled broadly, for there was his Mary, apron to her face, crying with joy only because their Nick was looking so happy and settled. Wordlessly, he wrapped his arms about her as his own eyes welled up.

------------------

Nick could not ever remember being so happy and he absolutely refused to decide from whence such contentment sprang. Whether it was the presence of staunch friends like Hetty and Robin; new family like Max and his charmingly acerbic wife, Beatrice, with their incessant quarreling; a combination of both friend and family such as Tristan was proving to be; whether it might be the conclusive finish to an old life which, although exciting and adventurous could never be a source of pride, or the prospect of a new life filled with endless possibilities. He did not know. Maybe it was all of them together, all of these people for whom he had a fondness or a respect. It seemed that trying to pin down a single source of his happiness was a fruitless task, after all; something like trying to catch the wind in one's hands.

His gaze roamed around the table. The numbers were wrong ­ he'd never make a proper host, he supposed ­ but had there ever been a merrier bunch? Here was Hetty on his right, engaging her plate with her utensils as if she'd not had a square meal in a fortnight. She looked up and caught his eyes on her, and she beamed at him, her plump cheeks rosy with pride at the new venture they had settled on.

To his right was Tristan. Even Robin, seated next to Tristan, had seen the immediate bond that had formed between these two half-brothers and was glad for Nick's sake. Nick had drawn Robin a little to one side when they were all gathered in the parlor and quickly explained his relationship to the Ravenscars. He was concerned that Robin would be upset to learn of his late grandfather's machinations and that the Old Gentlemen had most likely gone right 'round the bend before his death. Unlike Nick though, who had secretly treasured his unclaimed family, Robin's stark and brutal upbringing had left him with no love for either his father or his grandfather. He had simply tossed off a glass of canary and urged Nick not to fret about it; that if he, Robin, should ever develop any of the nastier St. James' family traits then Nick had his commission to shoot him on the spot. To which Nick had replied that he would have to do so soon did Robin persist in treating a good wine like small beer. And then asked in great earnest where it was again Robin bought his nightshirts?

Opposite Nick sat the Duchess of Ravenscar. Tristan had been pouring into his ear some fairly wild tales of the wedding ceremony for her and Max, as well as giving him some insight into why Max, seated between Hetty and the Duchess, could be considered to be on his best behaviour by ignoring Mrs. Bracegirdle entirely

Beatrice rapped her husband's knuckles with her soupspoon. "I still don't follow it all, Max. Start at the beginning."

"But it's all quite simple, Bea, really. Jonathan Simpson bore a grudge against Ned for killing Jack Simpson. From everything I've heard of that young man, the rest of the world would consider Ned did us all a favour. At any rate, Simpson first hired Ninian Ormsby to hang about Mrs.-um, ah ­ Mrs. Bracegirdle in order to learn what he might about where the Indefatigable was going to be sent, where Ned might next be assigned, that sort of thing. Pretty useless doings if he'd stopped to consider: He might have instigated the whole conspiracy but he was hardly what anyone would call a mastermind. And I gather Mrs. ­ um, ah ­ Mrs. Bracegirdle had given Ormsby his conge and sent him off with a flea in his ear anyway. Then Simpson caught a break: Spencer took him on as secretary, thus allowing the villain access to seals and private orders and such. Somehow or other, Simpson made contact with a man in Ushant, one Silas Chilton. He paid this Chilton to arrange for a pair of killers to be sent aboard the Inde when she dropped anchor there. Around that time was when I picked up a stray bit of information, and I sent an order to ­ Nick," he said the name carefully, as if trying to determine whether it fit his mouth, "to guard Ned. And he did a splendid job. Ned has written and told me the whole of it."

Nick flushed when the others applauded him.

"Unfortunately for Nick, he was captured shortly afterward and held by the French for a few days, before escaping and making his way back to England, where he spent some weeks recovering from Frog hospitality."

Nick smiled at the greatly censored version Max was handing out to Bea, the only person present entirely ignorant of what Nick had been and done. And naturally the name L'Oiseau never crossed Max's lips.

"Last night, at the Eversleigh affair, Mrs. ­ Bracegirdle overheard a conversation between Simpson and Ormsby in which Chilton's name was mentioned. Mrs. Durberry witnessed this, and as she is Ormsby's sister and was aware of the whole plot, she tried to put a period to Mrs. --."

"Hetty," interjected Nick, meeting Max's glare steadily. "She tried to strangle Hetty."

"Why was she not arrested at once?" demanded Bea.

"Because we didn't know who was her would-be killer, my love," explained Max.

"But you just said --."

"We know NOW," Max grated out, his scant resources of patience rapidly dwindling. "Last night we did not know."

Bea sniffed and Max looked ready to explode. Well-versed on the volatile nature of his brother and sister-in-law's relationship, Tristan took over the tale, his editing every bit as cautious as the Duke's.

"Then Ormsby was murdered early this morning. That was Chilton's handiwork, but Max and Nick did not know that when they went to confront Simpson. Unfortunately there was ANOTHER killer just ahead of them, and Simpson died right in front of them. Oh, sorry, Bea. I didn't mean to put you off your food. That's a dashed good ragout. Thinking Chilton must have killed Simpson as well as Ormsby, Nick went after him, and the two of them dueled right there in the Admiralty. Old Spencer must have had a stroke when he heard! You know what a dry old stick he is, Max, and -- and -- ." He stumbled as Max bent his glare upon him, then charged on. "Anyway, Nick disarmed Chilton, and I wish I had seen it because Max says Chilton is an absolute master swordsman but our lad is a sight more clever."

"I wish I had seen it as well," Robin interjected enviously. "Tomorrow, Nick," he warned, "I want to hear the entire bout, every parry, every feint, all of it! Do not even consider dodging me."

"Well," Tristan went on. "That's nearly the whole of it. To put the rest in a nutshell, Nick deduced that it was Mrs. Durberry who had actually murdered Simpson, thinking to avenge Ormsby's murder." An unholy glint flashed in his eyes as he finished. "One wants to take every precaution when arresting a gentlewoman, of course, so Nick thought it best that Hetty accompany us. To see to it that Mrs. Durberry received every consideration, you understand."

Nick carefully studied his plate while Hetty forked another prawn into her mouth, smiling her approval of this politic version of events.

"Y'know what this means, don't you, Nick? Spencer will offer you your position back again with a week, I daresay." Robin was pleased for his friend's sake.

Max's wineglass crashed against the table. Ignoring Bea's remonstrance, he thundered, "By heavens, he'll not accept it! I'll not have him back in that den of thieves and murderers-by-proxy!"

Bea and Tristan, all too familiar with Max's temper when crossed, both let out a sigh of relief when Nick said mildly, "No, I don't think I'll be asked, Rob. And if they do, I shall decline the privilege."

"Good lad," approved Max, turning his glare on Tristan. "Got a head on his shoulders."

Tristan ignored this sally, asking Nick, "What will you do then?"

"You could be a fencing master," joked Robin.

"Or a cleric," teased Tristan. "You do spend a great deal of time in church lately."

"Nonsense," Max said gruffly. "I've that estate in Northumbria he can manage."

Nick was sipping his wine but choked on that serious suggestion. "Thank you for the offer, Your Grace, but I should go mad in the country. All those birds and bees and chickens and sheep and -- and animals!" He shuddered. "I should shoot myself before a month was out. I thank you all, especially you, Tristan, for giving such serious thought to my future, and I will tell you that I have been giving the matter a good deal of study myself lately. You will be happy to know that none of you need wrack your brain any further, for the matter is entirely settled." He stopped as everyone save Hetty looked at him expectantly.

After a few seconds Robin proclaimed, "Very well, that is sufficient time for dramatic pause. Give over, Nick!"

"Very well, then." With elbows on the table, he steepled his hands, the fingers just touching his lower lip. "Hetty and I have decided to go into business for ourselves."

Ravenscar threw down his napkin and bellowed, "Trade, sir? Not in this family!"

"Not trade, Your Grace. Bracegirdle and Collins are to be an investigative agency. We will be offering discreet services to the ton: Do you suspect your daughter is being courted by a gazetted fortune-hunter, sir?" Nick posed the question dramatically. "Do you suspect your husband is pawning your jewels, ma'am, and replacing them with paste? Are your servants robbing you blind without your knowledge? Has your son fallen into company with a Captain Sharp? Or worse, has --?"

He broke off when Splinter came in and whispered in his ear.

"But this is wonderful!" Nick exclaimed. Rising from the table and going to the door, he threw it wide.

"Horatio!"

The unexpected appearance of Lieutenant Hornblower was a universal delight, the outburst of enthusiastic greetings taking the young officer slightly aback. Everyone knew him, it seemed, and stood to wring his hand in welcome, or in the case of the ladies, kiss his thin cheek.

"You are just in time for the next course," Nick informed the shyly smiling Horatio, escorting him to a chair. "Sit down with us, please. Tell us how you come here? Oh, and we've a good deal to tell you as well. I think your Captain will be pleased to hear from us all."

Horatio shook his head. "I am afraid I am not in fit condition to sit down with ladies. I must apologize for my appearance," this was greeted with hoots of derision, "for I have been traveling almost without stopping since going on shore at Falmouth."

Falmouth again! This time Nick bent his full attention to that tiny bell signaling him that there was something he ought ­ he really MUST remember about Falmouth.

"Tell me, Horatio, tell me what it is about Falmouth that I should remember but cannot," Nick urged, a look of frustrated curiosity on his countenance.

Horatio smiled wryly.

"I was expecting ­ hoping to meet you there, Nick, these five nights since. The night of the full moon," the officer reminded him.

Falmouth. The full moon. Meet Horatio --! Oh, God, yes! Now he remembered -- something... That damned L'Oiseau telling him over and over and why did the man not simply shut up? Surely he could see that Nick was too ill to take any heed of his babbling

"I was supposed to meet you in Falmouth, wasn't I? The night of the full moon in -- in September. Now. He ­ L'Oi ­ he was supposed to send me a parcel, something he saidhe said he wouldn't dare trust to anyone else. Damnation! Have I ruined it all, Horatio?" he whispered. "How can I have forgotten something so important?"

Hornblower smiled. "You were so desperately ill at the time, that he ­ let us just say that it was taken into consideration you might not be able to keep the appointment. The only thing now is that --. Here, take this ­." He pulled from inside his waistcoat a letter, heavily weighted so that at the first sign his ship might be captured the letter would go to the bottom of the Channel.

"You are to read this first. If you agree then to accept the ­ the parcel, then my orders are fulfilled. If you do not accept, then I must take the parcel away immediately."

"To where?" asked Nick, breaking the thick seal - - the wax was impressed with the image of a wolf, he noted ­ and unfolded the single page of foolscap.

Horatio shook his head. "I am not at liberty to disclose that."

Nick looked around at his guests. "Does anyone mind if I --?"

"Shut up and read it," said Tristan, and a glance of mutual understanding passed between the two men.

Nick gave his full attention now to the letter and was only a little surprised to find it was written entirely in English.

Dear Nicholas,

I hope I have earned the right to address you so familiarly. It does not bode well for me if you do not agree for I find myself in the position of begging a very great favour from you.

Perhaps you have heard the rumours of peace. I can tell you it WILL happen. The treaty may be signed by the New Year. But this will not be a true peace; it cannot be more than a pause for the two sides to rest and rebuild their strength. The peace will not last long and war will come again. It is inevitable. When it does, there is no telling how long it may last. Already we have been in conflict for seven years. I think once peace has been made and then dissolved again, the fighting could go on for twice that long. Even now, the situation here is so precarious that I dare not wait for the peace to come so that I might act more openly.

I must let go of my jewel then, at last. I have taken too many risks and waited far too long to make safe and secure this, my most precious possession. I have been guilty of a great selfishness not to let go sooner, to hold on through so much bloodletting and danger on every side. But then who could I trust to guard such a prize? There never was a one whom I could trust before, whose metal had been tested and proved. The man who holds this gem for me must be of proven loyalty, with a knowledge of evil as well as the courage and wit to fight it. Now that you will no longer be placing yourself in the direct path of danger for the sake of King George, I think you are that man. Chantal spoke often of you, so I know more about you than you may guess. And you, in turn, know more about me than anyone save my little sister, Jeanne.

And this is why I am entrusting her to your guardianship, if you will accept what I consider to be a singular honour. If you will not have her, I will understand. No, I will NOT understand, but Mr. Hornblower has instructions on where she is to go if you choose to deny me this office.

Yet I am convinced that no one save yourself else could so vigilantly and effectively guard and protect my sweet little Jeanne. I hope, for the service I have done you (you see I am not above extortion in a matter so near to my heart), you will accept her into your care. She is a good little thing, and has been longing to meet you all these weeks, ever since I planned her emigration. She will give you no trouble.

I regret I have not the leisure to come to England myself to persuade you. Please do not fail me in this, but believe me to be always

Your most humble servant,
D.L.

The veiled threat in the final paragraph was not lost on Nick, but was the man entirely insane? Ask a fellow assassin to play guardian to his little sister? His consternation was writ plain upon his face, and Robin asked, "Anything we can help with, old man?"

Nick gave a kind of half-laugh. "A - an old acquaintance has named me guardian to his little sister. A French emigre. She must be the 'parcel' you spoke of, Horatio?"

Horatio nodded, patiently awaiting Nick's decision.

Nick shook his head. "It's impossible," he thought aloud. "Could the man not see how completely unfit I am to have responsibility for a child? And yet...I owe him my life. But it's impossible!" This time he insisted with great firmness. "What in blazes would I do with a little girl?"

"You're making a great fuss over nothing, Nicholas," Hetty chided him, working up a mental portrait that fairly wrung her own heart with sympathy. "How much trouble can one small child be? And if she comes from France, she must have seen the horrors there! Too dreadful! You MUST take this child in and care for her. She is probably miserable at being separated from her brother, homesick and lonely and frightened, the poor little dear. And you owe this man a debt you can never repay -- but you also owe it to him to try!"

"It's impossible, Hetty!" Nick resisted. "To begin with I have no notion what one does with little girls."

"Occasionally one sends them to school," the Duchess said coolly. "Or one might choose to have them taught at home, where one can also have the opportunity to cherish and protect them, as well as -- and please don't faint here, Nicholas! -- get to know them."

But Nick really wasn't listening. He was trying to imagine a small child curiously poking into Splinter's workshop, playing about with powder and knives and pistols and -- God! He went icy with fear just to imagine it! And Charley. He would have to get rid of Charley if he took the child, for the dog now abided only two people in the world: Splinter and himself. The beast would maul an unsuspecting infant! A thousand and one obstacles paraded through his thoughts and all he could say was, "It's impossible."

"Mais non," a musical voice spoke from the doorway, "my brother tells me that for Nicholas Collins there is nothing that is not possible."

Nick's first thought was that the mademoiselle standing so ramrod straight despite the exhaustion of five days of hard travel could hardly be described as a child. But with pansy-brown eyes and soft curls that glinted copper as she pushed the hood of her cloak back, she could most certainly be described as 'little,' for he realized as he slowly stood up, she was no higher than his heart. That same heart which was doing a slow flip and causing some sort of blockage in his throat, so that he could hardly speak. And he could not understand it at all, what had just happened. After the life he had led, was't possible he was turning into a romantic? It must be true -- how else to explain that he had looked across the room and suddenly seen the other half of his soul standing there in crumpled sprig muslin and kid slippers? A half he had not even realized had been missing all these years. If he thought he had been happy earlier in the evening, he now realized he possessed a well of joy only just this instant tapped, and its source -- good heavens! Its source had a werewolf for a brother!

As the entire audience seemed to be a state of shock, Ma'm'selle smiled at everyone, made a perfect curtsy and introduced herself.

"Good evening. I am Mademoiselle Jeanne L'Oiseau. But I am going to become l'anglaise, an Englishwoman, so you must remember to call me Joan, n'est-ce pas?"

Hetty looked at the young miss and immediately saw every reason Society would list for why Nick should not, could not be a guardian to this attractive young lady. Hetty and Bea were in accord on this matter.

 

"It's impossible, Nicholas!" pronounced Hetty.

"Oh, no!" he purred softly, flowing around the table to greet his ward. "It's perfect!"

THE END